Friday, December 19, 2008

Where Did It?

I nearly opened an account for myself on Facebook the other day because I happened to come upon the profile of a person I used to know, among whose many Friends were other people I used to know, and I thought it would be pleasant to be one of this person's Friends myself, and perhaps a few of the others' (but not all of them--that is always the rub with me) as well. But upon considering the matter more soberly I was enough restored to my senses to give up this idea. Besides that I have no claim on these people's Friendship--all of them could plausibly argue that they don't know me at all--it's not likely any of them would have been meeting up with me any time in the near future for a raucous evening of drinks, dancing, humorous conversation and brutally honest, unvarnished, cinematic assessments of our respective existences. Which for some reason is what I am always imagining is going to happen...

Is it me, or in most media accounts is not consumer debt still treated as debt, i.e., an obligation that it would involve some measure of disgrace to default on, while things like pensions, union wage agreements Social Security, etc, are referred to as 'liabilities' or 'entitlements' that it would be in the best interest of companies and the government to seek to rid themselves of? Just saying, 'cause people who worked on the assembly line at GM for 40 years regarded those liabilities as perks of the job, and a motivation to keep showing up every day. Really, there is so much tough talk now about how people need to be grateful just to have any job at all to avert starvation and homelessness, but you still have to make it somewhat worthwhile for people, especially men, to bother with going to work at all. Our society I don't think is doing a very good job of that lately; even if people are too pampered, and they probably are, to gracefully endure a decline in their living standards, if that is what is truly necessary, they aren't getting much help or encouragement in doing so from their supposed betters

Childhood of Famous Americans. I used to love these books, but I am starting to think they belong on the list of bad influences as far as my ultimate literary and intellectual development went. I am going over the course of the next few months to be examining some of these unfortunate influences, or, as they are more popularly known, The Kinds of Books That People Like Heidigger, Wittgenstein, Ludwig von Mises, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, Robert Bresson, Anna Akhmantova, David Foster Wallace, et al, Did Not Read, or at least Did Not Get Taken In By For a Second. It was my peculiar fate that the library nearest my house when I was eight or nine or whatever had a large collection of this series--I have been to many libraries that did not have any of them at all--and my father being a history teacher so that I had a basic familiarity with many of the big names of American history, I developed an immediate attraction to the series, and thereon passed many hours in pleasant and, I imagined at the time, rewarding amusement. The original volumes of the series were published in the late 1940s and 50s, and were particular products of that time, the attitudes of which were already dated when I first got my hands of them in the late 1970s; these were probably the appeal of them to me however. The series operated from a conception of American history that was both dramatic and heroic, and that included, for that time, a fairly large number of volumes where the subjects were women, Indians, or blacks, though all were honored so far as they were seen to contribute to or embody approved qualities of the dominant mainstream narrative of an ever stronger, ever juster, ever more democratic, ever greater America. The endpapers of these books were so stirring to me as to have an almost magical quality. I used to study them for long periods of time and imagine myself fitting into one or other of the various categories of heroes. Both the front and back endpapers were lists of the series's books: the front was the chronological list, with the various divisions of historical pictures, accompanied by a little doodle ("The Revolution"--the three figures of the 'Spirit of '76'; "Westward Movement"--a covered wagon; "Turn of the Century"--a bowler-hatted gay nineties figure in a go-cart; "The Modern Age"--a jet) and the relevant biographies under it. The back endpapers were divided into categories according to achievement: Athletes, Explorers, Fathers of our Country (and Mothers--Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, and Molly Pitcher--who has now made it into 2 of my last 4 posts-- are included here), Writer and Artists, Inventors (with doodle of a test tube). Indians were actually grouped under the category of "Indians" (doodle--teepee). In the later editions, as more volumes were added to the series, the little cartoons had to be sacrificed due to the space limitations. Those later volumes I knew were distinctly not as good as the earlier ones. As the series became more popular, it became more self-conscious, it had more hands in it, and more killjoys from the ranks of educators, librarians, critics, etc keeping an eye on it. The effusive pleasure of the early years of the project could not be sustained. Apparently the series continues still, and new biographies continue to be written every year, though I cannot believe the new books are any good.

The peculiar genius of the early books is how incredibly unself-consciously democratic and bourgeois they were in their tone. Robert E Lee may have grown up the son of an aristocrat on a plantation, Babe Ruth in a bar with an alcoholic father, and Sitting Bull in a tent on the plains of South Dakota, but these circumstances are just matters of local color; for the most part their childhoods were remarkably like mine. The version of school that each attends is easily recognizable to the modern student, as are the nature of the games they play, their holiday celebrations, the parties and dances they go to; the identification and nurturing of each's special talent by some wise elder in the community is exactly what I imagined was somehow taking place with me. There is sometimes an adorable little girl of the hero's tribe of whom he evinces fondness. The John Quincy Adams book I remember presented his meeting his eventual wife when she was about 5 years old and he was 10 or 11.

The "biographies" of most of the really big name guys had been long lost by my library by the time I came around, so I never did get to read Washington or Lincoln or Jefferson or Franklin or FDR--they remained in the card catalog for years after their disappearance, but I never saw them on the actual shelves. So I mostly ended up reading a lot from the B-list of famous Americans: Crispus Attucks, Luther Burbank, Kit Carson, Francis Marion, George Dewey (he was from Vermont!). The Robert E. Lee book I remember as one of my favorites. For about two weeks I thought it would be awfully swell to live on a plantation as the (white) boy of the house, which is an effect it don't think it is considered appropriate for children's books to have nowadays (Absalom, Absalom it wasn't). The scene of the Christmas ball in that book made a great impression on me; the first time I went to a holiday party in the Great Hall at St John's College that chapter immediately rose in my memory. The Lou Gehrig book was another favorite, which, combined with the film biography of him The Pride of the Yankees (in which, I might add, it did not hurt matters that his wife was played by the official all-time favorite movie star of this blog), was pretty much responsible for his being to this day my all-time favorite ballplayer. All the sports ones were especially well-liked by me, since children's books about athletes are generally some of the worst books in existence.

It's been eight months since we've put up a picture of our Official Favorite Movie Star. The date of this magazine is December 16, 1946. Here are all the Life Magazine covers from 1946. Not a lot of heavy material covered, but I'd say a pretty decent year all in all.

Here is the first of two pages showing the covers of the Childhood of Famous Americans books.

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