Posted on October 5, 2015
So why was the theology professor walking up and down the New York waterfront counting to ten in the language of the Mendi?
The story of the slave ship Amistad is one that is often simplified to make Americans feel good about their country: a group of Africans enslaved in Spanish Cuba escape their chains, take over the ship, and force their captors to sail to America, the Land of the Free, hooray!
In fact it’s a bit more complicated than that, and if we dip into the complexities of the story, we can learn a lot more about the world at that time and about our country, which was not, at that time, the Land of the Free.
We can also see how individuals, doing the best they could, played a role in the outcome of the story, and in this way changed history.
“The Amistad Story,” published by The New Haven Colony Historical Society is a wonderful volume I picked up at a tag sale which tells the whole story in all its complexity, but also includes some simple facts, which are these:
The captain of the Coast Guard cutter which took possession of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island took the ship to Connecticut instead of New York.
Why? Because slavery was illegal in New York, but still legal in Connecticut, so he could get his salvage claim when the slaves were returned to their Spanish owners in Cuba.
Simple fact number two: the President of the United States (Martin van Buren) and his Secretary of State (John Forsythe) wanted the Africans aboard the Amistad returned to slavery in Cuba.
The Spanish government was demanding the return of the slaves under the terms of Pinckney’s Treaty and the Adams-Onis Treaty which applied to cargoes recovered from pirates.
It’s important to point out that the Amistad was not a transatlantic slave ship, but rather a ship which transported slaves from Havana 300 miles along the coast of Cuba to Guanaja.
The Amistad slaves had been kidnapped from the African nation of Mendi, but according to the Spanish government, they had been enslaved in Cuba since 1820.
Both Spain and Great Britain had banned the transatlantic slave trade, but it was thriving in Cuba, and the American consul in Havana, Nicholas Trist, was “reaping tremendous financial benefits.”
Isn’t that the American way?
The only way to prove that the Africans on board the Amistad were not Cuban slaves was to take their testimony, to show they had been kidnapped in Africa, but nobody in Connecticut could understand them beyond a few basic words.
It was then that Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of theology and sacred literature at Yale University, showed what he was made of.
He learned to count to ten in the language of the Mendi, and then he walked up and down the waterfront in New York counting in Mendi until he found a British seaman who was familiar with the language and could take testimony from the liberators of the Amistad.
That wasn’t the end of the story, of course. They needed the help of a former president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, to plead their case, but JQA got the job done, and the rest, they say, is history. The slaves on board the Amistad were returned to their homes.
Posted on September 3, 2015
In yet another attempt to throw some stuff out, I tackled some old magazines I’d been saving, including a pile of old New Yorkers in a box with some of my mother’s things. I started reading through them, and “Nope. Can’t toss these, Too entertaining.”
Cast in point an article in the March 8, 2010 edition by Patricia Marx about shopping in Brooklyn.
“If Brooklyn were a country,” she writes, “its chief exports would include artisanal pickles, eco-friendly yoga wear, Red Hook-made Saipua soap, and books written by men named Jonathan.”
Marx also shares an insight about what hipsters hate:
“According to the depressingly astute Web site stuffhipstershate.tumbler.com, among the many things that fill hipsters with loathing are: Starbucks, lip gloss, hard sciences, monogamy, standing up straight, flip-flops, condos, spiky hair, cell phone holsters, U2, biceps, the Kindle, Seth Rogen, knowing their bank balance, Manhattan, bras, running, oldsters, other hipsters, and You.”
“They also hate staying in one place too long,” she continues, “so let’s follow them northward to Greenpoint, and not give a damn what they think.”
Posted on August 17, 2015
You know how it is when you make one of those giant beach books your own. It’s a bit of a pain to lug around, but you go to it for daily sustenance month after month after month.
You know, like Nicholas and Alexandra, or a Michener tome.
And then at last, it’s over, and you feel you’ve lost a friend. But if you flip that around, it really means you’ve found a friend. Whoever it was that wrote the book turns out to be a kindred spirit.
After more than six months, I’ve finally finished And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer, (1433 pages in paperback) and not only have I made a good friend, I’ve made a dozen of them, and I’ve met their children and their grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren.
I feel like I’m on the beach at the Sandy Beach Club in South Conway, New Hampshire, looking at the children frolicking in Conway Lake, and saying, “That’s got to be Lucy’s boy.”
Lucy’s brother Brad died tragically at a young age many years ago. He was a lot older than I was, but he took the time to make me and my brothers part of the gang when we were outsiders.
He introduced us to Lou Christie (Two Faces Have I) and the Beach Boys (If everybody had an ocean…) and then, we heard, he died in an accident hitchiking in Sweden.
Years later as I took a plunge into the water and came to the surface, here was his lookalike nephew.
“I know who you are,” I said. “You’re the spitting image of your uncle.”
In And Ladies of the Club, you make friends with families and follow them over generations, and gain real insights into daily life, and politics, and economics, and fashion and the social norms from 1868 to 1932.
The novel opens with a tableau of graduation ceremonies at the Waynesboro Female Academy in 1868, when Sally Cochrane first fixes her eye on Captain Ludwig Rausch, and Anne Alexander establishes her claim on his friend Captain (and Dr.) John Gordon. Both captains have been honored as heroes in the Civil War.
We learn all about Anne and Sally and their friends and their families, and their children’s families, and what it’s like to die of rheumatic fever, or tuberculosis, or diphtheria, and what it’s like to be a country doctor when there’s just not much that you can do.
Captain Rausch starts a rope company and becomes a tycoon, and a political mover and shaker, while Captain Gordon is haunted by his grim battles with his memories of death in the Civil War hospitals.
President Rutherford B. Hayes and William Tecumseh Sherman both make appearances, and not just cameos, either. Hayes expresses his concern over the power of money in politics, and General Sherman comiserates with Captain Gordon over the loss of Gordon’s young daughter. (Sherman lost a child during the war.)
Throughout the novel, we see many points of view, but the most central one is Anne Alexander, though we come to know her by her married name, Anne Gordon.
She’s really a heroic figure, but you don’t think of her that way. She’s just Anne. It wasn’t until after I had finished the book that I realized that Anne lost her mother at an early age, her brother in the Civil War, her father, her young daughter, her husband, and finally, her son, to heart disease in his forties.
Through all of this she soldiers on, hardly giving a thought to her own cares, providing love and support to those in need.
Even when she is near death herself, she befriends the granddaughter of a friend and shows her old magazines and newpapers and letters about the old days, and we get a glimpse of how this novel came about.
The relationship between the young writer and the octogenarian humanitarian is a real delight. The icing on the cake you might say.
This novel was published with little acclaim in 1982. Then, in 1983, Grace Sindell heard a library patron returning the book say it was the best she had ever read. Ms. Sindell read it in two days, agreed, and sent it to her son Gerald, a Hollywood promoter, who got Putnam to republish it. After it became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it went on to be a national bestseller.
Helen Santmyer, then in a nursing home, was amused more than anything else. “Ninety percent of the hoopla,” she said, “is because I’m such an old lady.”
I disagree. The hoopla was from readers like me, who found in this book the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Great American Novel.
Posted on August 2, 2015
I’m always curious about old books I find all by themselves at tag sales held by people who are manifestly not bookish.I once found a volume of Yeats in a driveway littered with things ordered from TV ads – vegetable dicers, sandwich makers and nordic traks. It was in a box with Babysitters Club books — obviously a bookish daughter had moved away.
I found a copy of Queed at a tag sale like that, and something about it caught my eye. What was it doing there? Must have belonged to Grandpa.
Queed was actually quite popular in its day, back in 1911. It tells the story of a young man of unknown parentage who is raised by the New York City policemen by the name of Queed. The young man becomes a brilliant, self-educated scholar, who achieves success as a writer and embarks on a grand work of evolutionary sociology.
He moves to an unspecified Southern city. I first guessed Baltimore, but then it became the site of a grand review of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the author mentioned it had battlements all over the place, so I concluded it had to be Richmond, rightly as it turns out.
Anyway Queed, at first devoted to intellectual pursuits, learns the value of, in no particular order, exercise, friendship, and public service. At first he grudgingly takes precious minutes away from his great work to help his landlady’s daughter Fifi with her homework. Fifi has a cough, so you know she’s going to die tragically.
H.L. Mencken called Harrison a “merchant of mush,” but I’m much more tolerant of sentimentality. Indeed, I opine that sentiment, and more specifically love, is the only thing worth writing about.
Anyway , Queed, the overly intellectual 98-pound weakling becomes a robust, compassionate guy with lots of friends, and I found the process edudicating. It would spoil everything to say he also finds his father and gets the girl, but I have the feeling that the chances of any of my readers actually reading it are slim to none.
If my grandfather had left me a book of this kind, I wouldn’t be selling it at a tag sale with veg-o-matics and craft supplies.
And Miss Charlotte Lee (Sharlee) Weyland, the girl he gets in the end, is really something, a trailblazing feminist character, who founds a reformatory for young women who have been led astray.
Posted on July 20, 2015
Driving my scooter home from my favorite pub, I saw a paperback in the road. It was a book by Judy Blume, and my daughter is a big fan of hers; and I saw from the blurb on the back that it’s set in Martha’s Vineyard, where I and my cousins used to visit my grandmother in the summer when we were kids.
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume is a great read. It’s about the friendship between two young girls in Santa Fe, one rich, one not.
The rich one, Caitlin, invites the poor one, Victoria, to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her and her father and stepmother. They become fast friends and go back every year.
We hear all about their adventures growing up, sometimes in great detail, which was interesting for me because I grew up in a family with three brothers, and girls and women were always a big mystery to me.
Vixen and Cassandra, as they are known, become known as “double trouble” and explore the world of teen romance with two islander brothers they meet at the Flying Horses, the famous carousel in Oak Bluffs.
The author introduces lots and lots of characters and paints them all very realistically, even the minor ones. We even shift into the point of view of each of them for short vignettes: the ancient countess that Victoria’s mother takes care of, the sour-faced aunt who’s waiting to inherit from Caitlin’s grandmother, the brother, the brother’s friend, the stepmother, etc. etc.
All in all, this is really a great read, a wonderful slice of life, by a real master of the art, with a lot of hot sex scenes thrown in for good measure.
I’m going to send it to my daughter, who wants to read it, but I hope I don’t get a visit from the postal inspectors for sending prurient materials through the US Mail.
Posted on July 2, 2015
I’m having a rollicking good time reading John Allen’s autobiography: Marmite Cowboy. Or perhaps I should say a bollocking good time, since John is well-known hereabouts as the founder and lead singer of the Big Bad Bollocks, a wildly popular pub rock band that toured the US and the UK for 20 years and now performs occasionally.
Marmite Cowboy is a delightful picaresque (“the adventures of an engagingly roguish hero described in a series of humorous or satiric episodes”) that traces John’s travels from the small village in the North of England where he was born, to the Liverpool Art College (where Lennon met McCartney), to the good old USA, “a Land of Oz imagined from TV shows, movies, comic books and Camel cigarette packs.”
I’ve learned a lot about England, especially the divide between the grebos of the North and nobs of the South. John grew up in the shadow of Gibbet Rock, which was where the nobs dealt with anyone who refused to be the cannon-fodder of empire.
There was a lengthy procedure, prescribed by centuries of tradition, whereby they were hanged until nearly dead, then their entrails were extracted and burned before their eyes, and then they were suspended in a human-shaped cage and left to die as an example to others.
When we watch Prince William and Princess Kate and their offspring, we ought to remember what their way of life is based on.
We learn a lot about America, too. The slices of life we read about are not tourist destinations, but real ones — a country club in Ohio, a mafia bar in Michigan, a hippie farm in Georgia, and many others, where we meet a fascinating array of characters, from catamite clerics to paranoid gangsters.
In the early chapters of Marmite Cowboy, we also build our word power with terms like balbriggan, gobsmack, grebo and Shimmygog.
And we learn about John’s unique destiny. He shuttles back and forth between his native and adopted countries like Henry James, always wishing for the one when he’s in the other.
Finally he travels back to England with this funny hat with wings on it, and gets ridiculed at every stage of the journey, but most of all back in his home village, and it all becomes clear to him.
“By the standards of local troglodytes I did look like a twat in that hat, but I didn’t want anyone telling me that I couldn’t look like a twat if I felt like looking like one.
“My role in the village had always been ‘the nonconformist’. Just like Vicar, the Headmaster, the Butchers, the Builders, the Village Idiot, etc.
“I had a role, and part of my role was that one day I’d have to leave and turn my back on the place I was born — a bittersweet destiny to be sure.”
What makes this book a great read is its scathing honesty. There are parts that a lesser soul might have wanted to leave out, but the author decided to let us have it all, unedited, unexpurgated, in all its wild and crazy glory.
And its humility. There’s a lot of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but not a trace of boasting or pretension, which would poison a work of this kind.
The truth has an unmistakable ring to it, and that’s what distinguishes a feel-good memoir from a real work of art, and a ripping good read.
Posted on May 31, 2015
For the last three weeks I’ve been lost in a feverish bout of flu, and what better companion could I ask for than Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks.
The protagonist is a registered sex offender known as the Kid who, we eventually learn, is a virgin. In fact he’s never even been kissed. His crime was making plans to have sex with a man posing as a 14-year-old girl in a sting operation like the ones you see on “To Catch a Predator.”
As a sex offender, the Kid wears an ankle bracelet location device and he is forbidden to live within 2500 feet of a school or playground or anywhere else that children congregate.
If you draw 2500-foot circles around all such places, there are only two places in Calusa County where he can legally live.
One is under a highway underpass with a colony of other sex offenders, and the other is in the corner of a state park in the Great Penzacola Swamp.
So if you’re drifting in and out of fever dreams, this is the book for you!
I was looking at the blurbs on the cover, all very complimentary, of course, when my eye settled on one from the Washington Post Book World:
“Russell Banks knows everything worth knowing… and much, much more.”
Is that overly effusive praise, or a subtle dig? Either way, it’s pretty funny. And how did it get on the cover? Did the publishers miss the irony, or did they notice it and include it as a wry twist on the usual blurb? My fevered brain could not decide.
In this wonderful book, Russell Banks tells you everything worth knowing about Felchers, teabaggers, obese professors, and the history and geology of southern Florida… and much, much more!
Russell even makes an appearance in person, as a character known as ‘the Writer’ who befriends the Kid and helps him sort out the issues raised by the apparent suicide of the obese professor.
At one point the Kid tells the Writer he doesn’t want him (the Writer) to tell his (the Kid’s) story.
Russell takes the opportunity to poke fun at his reputation as a writer of grim tales.
“Who’d want to read it,” the Writer replies, “Kiddie porn and child molestors, pedophiles and suicidal college professors? Jesus!”
“Besides, I’m just a freelance travel writer, not some kind of investigative journalist or a novelist trying to depress people.”
It is a fact that nothing good has ever happened to a character in a Russell Banks novel since Bob Dubois got a blowjob in Continental Drift, and even then he (Bob Dubois) wasn’t sure if he’d gotten laid or not.
In this (yet another) brilliant book, Banks invites us to remove the titillation factor from the justice system and to discriminate between the Kid, who has done nothing, and another character, the Shyster, who raped prepubescent girls with the connivance of their mothers.
In the interest of full disclosure, Russell Banks is my former father-in-law, who has doted on my fairy princess daughter and given her a vision of her potential as an actress and a writer.
I remember when he took her to a writers’ convention when she was 12 years old, and she told me she’d met a “nice lady” named Judy Blume.
So don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Margaret Atwood: “Russell Banks tackles hard subjects with verve and courage.”
Amen to that. Anyway, now I’m hucking up stuff, and that’s a good sign.
Posted on April 22, 2015
I can’t say I’m having a lot of fun with Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. I keep feeling like I’m missing something, and I’m not sure I care what it is.
It’s about a colonel in the US Army occupation forces in Italy who, we gather, is not long for this world due to a heart condition.
He goes on a duck shoot with a bunch of people and then we flash back to the previous two days which he has spent in Venice with his girlfriend, who is nineteen years old (he’s 50) and a contessa from one of the city’s oldest families. They have a palace.
The reader gleans this information bit by bit from a sparse narrative and a lot of dialogue, and it takes a lot of work, especially since a lot of references that Hemingway might expect his readers to get at the time are now dated.
The main theme of the book seems to be the fact that the colonel used to be a general, but is not anymore because he lost a regiment or a battalion or some large portion of an army, due to misguided orders which he had to obey.
He and the contessa stroll and dine and shop around Venice, and there’s some heavy petting aboard a gondola (I think. The text is ambiguous.)
And since they both know the town well, there’s a lot of amusing banter with the bartenders and waiters and the manager of the hotel, the gran maestro, some of whom served with the colonel when he was in the Italian Army in World War I.
And she keeps asking him about the war (the second one) and the lost regiment, and I think the idea is she wants him be at peace before he dies.
But mainly, I guess, it’s about two people making the most of what they know is a short amount of time.
So they often say how much they love one another until it’s a little like Jerry Seinfeld and his girlfriend calling each other ‘schmoopie,’ but you can kind of skip over that, and it does reach a certain level of poignancy.
A lot of it is funny, too. He teaches her to speak American, so after breakfast she offers her hand to the gran maestro and says, “Put it there, pal. This grub is tops.”
Then she asks the colonel how they announced breakfast back on the ranch when he was a boy. He says the cook would say, “Come and get it, you sons of bitches, or I’ll throw it away.”
“I must learn that for in the country,” she says, referring to the family’s chateau. “Sometimes when he have the British Ambassador and his dull wife for dinner I will teach the footman, who will announce dinner, to say, ‘Come and get it, you son of bitches, or we will throw it away.'”
The colonel and his buddies have this funny club called the Order of the Knights of Brutadelli, named for a war profiteer from Milan who publicly accused his young wife of having “deprived him of his judgment through her extraordinary sexual demands.”
There are a lot of jokes about Brutadelli throughout the book, and near the end the colonel tells the contessa the order’s “Supreme Secret”:
“Love is love and fun is fun. But it is always so quiet when the gold fish die.”
I get it. Sort of.
Posted on April 16, 2015
When I was in sixth grade, more than half a century ago, the man who brought the news of President Kennedy’s assassination to my classroom was The Reverend Francis Caswell, headmaster of Dexter School from 1938 to 1964.
Rev. Caswell was a beloved teacher and mentor to hundreds of Dexter graduates over the years, including President Kennedy and his older brother Joseph, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee.
Rev. Caswell took on the extraordinary task of sending a postcard to every Dexter graduate on his birthday, hundreds and hundreds every year.
These postcards, duly forwarded by my mother, found me in all the different places where I resided throughout my life and served as a cheery reminder of this warm and caring educator.
Rev. Caswell — he was actually known to us as Mr. Caswell — taught us Latin and Social Studies, and I still remember a mnemonic device he taught us for remembering all the members of the U.S. president’s cabinet: St. Wapdiacl.
(Secretary of State, Treasury, Welfare, Attorney General, Postmaster General, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor).
I can attest to the effectiveness of this mnemonic device, because I still remember it after more than fifty years.
“But,” you might ask, “what about the Department of Education and the Department of Energy?”
These two departments were not included in Mr. Caswell’s mnemonic device because they didn’t exist at the time.
The Department of Energy was created in 1977 and the Department of Education in 1979.