Monday, April 6, 2009

Silver filling

The Felix Chronicles,

# 15

In which a perfectly good lesson plan is ruined by a cabal of curious students

It’s time for “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” and I’m really looking forward to it this year.

Vachel Lindsay’s 1919 poem about the presidential election of 1896 is not exactly standard fare in English classes (or any other kind). Lindsay, known as “the Prairie Troubadour” in the early twentieth century for his syncopated style of repetitive poetry, is today remembered as a minor poet, a kind of Whitman knock-off. But “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan” is a wonderful poem, and has the particularly attractive attribute of being written from the point of view of a sixteen year-old boy – a perfect demographic for my students. For most of this decade, the adolescents with whom I’ve discussed it have regarded the poem quizzically: deeply disenchanted with partisan politics in the Age of Bush, they had a hard time believing anyone could care much about a presidential election (though they were all too familiar with laments about the wrong man winning). But surely now, in the bright new memories of last year’s campaign, many will recognize a now-familiar yearning and excitement in a passage like this:

He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

I come into class and project an online version of the poem onto the Smart Board. This will be good: I’ll be able to recite it better this way than having to glance down at a sheet of paper. First, though, I have to review our discussion of Populism and sketch out the fusion ticket the party worked out with Democrats on the silver issue. I’m just about to jump to the Republicans, Mark Hanna (a.k.a. the Karl Rove of the 19th century), and the nomination of William McKinley, when Kim stops me in my tracks.

“Wait a second: Bryan ran as a Populist and a Democrat?”

“Yes. It was a little complicated because he had a different vice-president on each ticket, but a candidate running on two party lines is not all that unusual. Happens all the time in New York City elections, for example, though admittedly not often at the presidential level.”

“Who were the vice-presidential candidates?” she asks by way of follow-up.

“I don’t remember. Doesn’t really matter. The point is that one was a Gold Bug and the other a Silverite, which –”

“Can we back up a bit here?” Susan asks. “I know we talked about this the other day. The Gold Bugs believed –”

“Yes. They wanted the dollar pegged to gold. Every dollar in circulation has a specific amount of gold sitting in a bank somewhere to match it. Silverites wanted to peg the dollar to silver, which was more plentiful – there were literally tons and tons of it in the Comstock Lode of Nevada here,” I say, pointing at the map on the wall. “Now –”

“Why did they want that?” Ted asks.

“Well, as I said the other day,” I reply as evenly as I can, “pegging the dollar to silver will lower its value.”

“Right,” Sam interjects. So if I’m in debt, like a lot of farmers were, that dollar is worth less than it used to be and so is easier to pay back.”


“But can that really work?” Ted asks. Where the hell was he Tuesday when I was explaining this? Probably looking out the window and worrying about the fake ID he was going to need to buy beer on Saturday night.

“Well, sure,” I say, “if you’re a farmer in debt. Of course, if you’re a banker, you regard the gold standard as sacred. You expect any money you lend to retain its value, and to earn interest to boot. But if you’re William Jennings Bryan, the people you care most about are being crushed by the gold standard. When Bryan storms into Madison Square Garden in 1896 to accept the Democratic National Convention – he was like a rock star in those days – he gave a famous speech in which he said, ‘You will not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.’ Which brings us to this poem I want to discuss today.”

Beth’s hand is in the air. “Yes, Beth.” I look up at the clock.

She knows I want to move on, and is apologetic. “Sorry,” she says. “I just want to clarify something. What you’re talking about here is deflation, right?”

“Yes. Deflation. Dropping prices. Big problem for farmers. Less for their crops. Harder to repay what they owe.”

“But we don’t have deflation anymore, do we? I mean in modern days the problem is inflation, not deflation, right?”

I exhale sharply. “Well, if you were to ask me this before a couple months ago, I’d say you’re right. Deflation, or a spiral of lowering prices, is really scary.”

“Why is that?” Ted asks. “Aren’t low prices good, at least for some people?”

Oh, the hell with it. I proceed to describe the way deflation creates a psychology where people are reluctant to buy anything, because they think the price will be lower tomorrow than it was today. Inflation, by contrast, makes people buy because they fear if they don’t prices will be higher tomorrow. Before long I’ve digressed into Richard Nixon floating the dollar against a basket of currencies in the seventies, the state of the contemporary Manhattan real estate market, and how a fixed versus variable rate mortgage works. I’m in the middle of mangling a definition of what a collateralized debt obligation is, reminding the insistent Kim that I don’t, after all, teach economics, when I see that class is over. Alas, I really need to move on to imperialism tomorrow. Mr. Bryan will have to go back into the crypt for another year.

“You did the right thing, honey,” my wife tells me that night when I lament my short-circuited class over a plate of penne a la vodka. “Isn’t that what progressive educators call ‘emergent curriculum?’”

“Nice to know it has a fancy name,” I grumble. “I just wanted to do ‘Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.’”

“Well, it’s not just about you.”

“No kidding.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve got some nice Bartlett pears for dessert.”

Wow: Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores. Synchronicity. I think of that great song by the Police. "How about wild roses from the plains? Or funny circus silks?

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind. I was just sharing a laugh with my friend Vachel Lindsay.”