Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sensing the future

The following is the catalog copy for my forthcoming book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, slated for publication by Oxford University Press in late 2012
How do perceptions of the past—not just of particular events, but of the trajectory of history as a whole—shape our experience of the world? To answer this (and other) questions, Jim Cullen looks closely at the work of what might be considered an unlikely source of historical insight—the work of six major Hollywood stars. Indeed, Cullen offers a fascinating portrait of pivotal movements that have shaped our history as reflected in the work of Clint Eastwood, Daniel Day-Lewis (at left, made up as Abraham Lincoln for his forthcoming performance in Team of Rivals), Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Jodie Foster. By focusing on the career choices made by these powerful actors, all of whom have the rare ability to put their personal stamp on their work, Cullen reveals a discrete set of historical narratives, including a surprising strain of Jeffersonian communitarianism that runs through Eastwood’s work, a sense of how the frontier shaped American character as reflected in the roles chosen by Day-Lewis, the Lincoln-styled belief in institutions and the power of ordinary people that runs through the films of Tom Hanks (like Jimmy Stewart before him), and the history of liberal feminism of the last century captured in the movies of Meryl Streep. That these historical patterns emerge in the work of these six artists—almost certainly unintentionally--sheds much light on the way that, for all of us, historical forces can shape our understanding of the world without our being aware of them.

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Left-Handed Complement

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt explores the unconscious basis of morality

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

This book, the product of a powerful mind, integrates cutting-edge research from the disciplines of biology, psychology, anthropology, history, philosophy, and other fields. It attempts to answer a deceptively simple question: How do people determine what is right, and how are we to understand the differences between them? Haidt's answer is that morality is largely a function of processes autonomous of conscious tho
ught. To use a metaphor in a book chock full of mnemonic devices, our minds are like elephants on which reason is the rider -- but that the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around. And that we cannot really begin to have a meaningful political discourse until we recognize that the basis of our disagreements are never really about formal logic.

Haidt's assertion that explicit arguments are literally rationalizations for our deepest instincts has become something of a truism in recent neurological research (and a basis of his last book, The Happiness Hypothesis). But this observation is merely the point of departure in The Righteous Mind. It turns out that Haidt's real agenda is to deconstruct the liberal secular disposition that he's clearly calculating is the default setting for readers of his work. This deconstruction involves pointing out the striking degree of parochialism on the part of those who consider themselves enlightened. He notes that most of the people who design social science assessments, along with the volunteers who participate in them, are WEIRD -- Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic -- and that such people are in fact a tiny minority of the global population. Gaining critical distance on this subset, which he acquired by spending time in India, has helped him to understand the world beyond the elite institutions (Penn, Chicago, the University of Virginia) where he has done most of his work.

From there, Haidt goes on to posit that morality consists of a series of discrete sensors akin to the way those on our tongues determine our sense of taste. They are spectra of care/harm; liberty/oppression; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. Liberals, he notes, have a very high degree of sensitivity to care criteria, along with aversion to oppression and and an emphasis on fairness (typically defined in terms of equality). Conservatives, by contrast, are not devoid of such sensors; they too wish to avoid harm, oppression and unfairness, though they tend to cast averting such evils in terms of freedom from rather than freedom to, and to define fairness in terms of proportionality rather than equality. But the important point for Haidt is that conservatives, like people in much of the rest of the world, have a much wider basis of morality than liberals do: they value concepts like patriotism and a sense of the holy in ways that liberals stint if not actually dismiss. Liberals have a blind spot whereby they simply don't recognize, much less engage such criteria, one reason why in surveys conservatives tend to do a much better job of describing liberals than liberals do conservatives. (This is a point that has been made a number of times, but the empirical basis of Haidt's research can be found on his website,

Why does this matter? It matters, he says, because biology says it does. Haidt slices through the age-old Gordian knot of nature vs. nurture by jumping on the au courant bandwagon that our brains are not hard-wired, but rather pre-wired. Biology is not destiny, exactly: any number of programs can be downloaded, depending on environmental availability. But not an infinite number. And all of us come equipped with outlets for inputs like a sense of the sacred, whether or not they get filled. Haidt is less interested in whether God actually exists than what he regards as a powerful predilection to behave as if there is one (or 600). He makes a kind of neurological Pascal's Wager: we're better off believing.

And this matters, in turn, because one of the things human beings most certainly are is social beings. Haidt regards the concept of rational self-interest as misleading, not so much because there isn't such a thing, or because that he wants to affirm the reality of altruism, but because humans, liberal mythology notwithstanding, are not simply collections of individuals, but part of larger social organisms that belong to, and behave, in terms of a hive, at least some of the time. Insofar as there is such a thing as altruism, he casts it in terms of Darwinian group selection. Which is to say that altruism is real -- but inevitably circumscribed. We can act on behalf of causes larger than ourselves, but there are strict limits on how far that can go. We will die for God or country. We will not for socialized health care or an abstract sense of a global community. And those of us who really are passionate about such things have little hope of convincing our fellow citizens that such causes matter unless they're able to cast them broader moral terms than relying solely on caring or fairness. One is reminded here of the late Christopher Lasch, who in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), anticipated many of these arguments. As Lasch reminded us in that book, it was the Reverend Martin Luther King who scored the greatest successes in the Civil Rights Movement, a movement that was most successful when its resources and aspirations were understood in terms of (evangelical) religion.

The Righteous Mind is a very carefully constructed book; Haidt ends each chapter by summing up his main points as part of a larger strategy to construct as sturdy an empirical edifice as he possibly can. As his tower gets higher, one nevertheless becomes increasingly aware of its wobbliness: scientific findings -- especially social science findings -- are changing all the time; one generation's insight becomes the next generation's fallacy. And while few of us are in a position to credibly vet the methodology of what seem to be rather cleverly designed surveys, it seems impossible not to think that the wording of a question here or a protocol there wouldn't lead in another direction.

What's really troubling, though, is how emphatically Haidt seems to stint the role of rational discourse in the making and changing of individual minds -- a bit odd, actually, given that this is a densely reasoned piece of writing. He mentions a few times that such discourse can matter in some situations, but he spends little time showing where and how. It's enough to make one think that there's another dissertation on the horizon by a graduate student who takes this vague sense of unease and fashions it into a form of neo-rationalism for the post-Obama era. Surely someone will posit a compelling Darwinian story about how a capacity for persuasion is more than a mere appendix in the lottery of natural selection.

Still, it's no mean praise to say The Righteous Mind is a book written in good faith. It deserves to be read and discussed widely.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Shades of Brown

In Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, Andrew Nagorski observes Germany through a red-white-and-blue lens

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Hitlerland: a term coined in the Berlin-based 1930s by International News Service writer Pierre John Huss to describe Nazi Germany. Huss. Huss, who later worked as one of the so-called "Murrow's Boys" assembled by the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, interviewed Adolf Hitler multiple times. William Shirer, who also knew a thing or two about Germany in the '30s, described Huss as "slick, debonair, and ambitious." Some of Huss's peers grumbled at the time that he was a little to close the Nazi regime, which may or may not have been true. But as Andrew Nagorski makes clear in this often absorbing book, there were many Americans in Germany at the time who were open in their admiration of it, along with those who were confused, afraid, and angry about it.

In Hitlerland, former Newsweek journalist Andrew Nagorski finds a clever way to tell a familiar story. He's gathered up dozens of sources from Americans who lived, worked, or simply passed through Germany in the two decades following the Great War and sketched a compelling composite portrait. Among the most durable and informed observers we meet are Truman Smith, a military attaché to the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Hearst correspondent Karl Henry von Wiegand, and Chicago Tribune reporter (and later radio correspondent) Sigrid Schultz. More familiar names include future television broadcaster Howard K. Smith, future CIA director Richard Helms, and celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, of course, later became infamous for his isolationism, widely viewed as Naziphilia by another name. In Hitlerland, however, we meet him and his also famous wife Anne in their first visit to Germany before his viewed solidified. Ironically, Lindbergh's VIP tour of state-of-the-art German aviation yielded information that proved to be of considerable value to the American government. The far more repugnant figure in Hitlerland is Ernst "Putzi" Hafstaengl the half-German/half-American Harvard graduate who worked for a time as Hitler's propagandist before being dumped by the Fuhrer. In one of the more dramatic moments in the book, young Hitler takes refuge in the immediate aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 with Hafstaengl's wife, Helen, in their Bavarian home. Hitler was reputedly infatuated with Helen, who talked him out of possibly killing himself as authorities closed in to arrest him. It's hard to know how serious Hitler's suicide threat was, but it's sobering to consider that an American woman's woman intervention may have been the last best chance to prevent the Holocaust.

There are lots of vivid cameo appearances in Hitlerland, too: Jesse Owens, Josephine Baker, Philip Johnson, and a callow young John F. Kennedy wander through, their opinions perhaps inevitably filtered through their individual circumstances. Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis are initially charmed by what the see, but are increasingly troubled. So is U.S. Ambassador William Dodd, whose story is chronicled in Erik Larson's recently published bestseller In the Garden of Beasts. Dodd's daughter daughter Martha starts out enchanted by the regime but then trades her loyalty to the comparably dubious Russia of Josef Stalin. 

If there's a problem with Hitlerland, it's that the trajectory of his story -- which features the usual "highlights" of the failed coup attempt, Hitler's ascension to power, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallacht, and the outbreak of war -- is little different than any number of other accounts of the period. As a group, Americans, Jewish or not, prove no more or less prescient than any number of other people at the time, German or not. Nagorski usefully emphasizes that the impact of war in Germany was felt forcefully and negatively even in the early, triumphant months of 1940 and 1941, and the pace of the narrative picks up steam as he does. We also view the hugely influential Soviet diplomat George Kennan during what for him was a brief but irritating stint in Germany, trying to corral an unruly clutch of American correspondents temporarily interred by the German government, pending an exchange following its declaration of war on the United States. But interpretively speaking, the book tells us little we didn't already know about the tenor of the Nazi regime. Certainly, Hitler is as magnetic, repellent, and inscrutable as ever.

Hitlerland is nevertheless a well conceived, crafted, and executed story. Casual as well as informed World War II buffs will savor it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tricky Dick fictions

In his new novel Watergate, Thomas Mallon bends reality to make it true

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Even when it was as fresh as as the latest edition of a newspaper, Watergate was complicated. Yes, the essence of the story -- failed attempt to break into the opposition's headquarters leads to cover-up and eventual resignation of a president -- is clear enough. But the cast of characters in the saga is enormous, and the various contexts for the story include the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Vietnam War, and an entirely separate scandal involving the Vice-President, among others. The saga has been widely dissected, beginning of course with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men (1974), the movie of the same year that followed two years later, and countless subsequent accounts that stretch from the journalism of Jonathan Schell to the the multi-volume biography of Stephen Ambrose to the biopic of Oliver Stone (in which Anthony Hopkins does a pretty good Richard Nixon). Should you ever wish to wade into the that water, there's plenty of people waiting to guide you.

Thomas Mallon's novelistic foray into Watergate is distinctive for a number of reasons. The first is that it's relatively demanding.  The cast of characters runs for four pages of the print edition (9 on my Kindle). The second is that aspects of this story are clearly -- and not so clearly -- fictional. Wait, I said to myself: did Pat Nixon really have an affair? (This is the first I heard of it.) There's a part of the story that shows the president's secretary, Rose Mary Woods erasing the famous 18 minutes of subpoenaed tapes in which Nixon reputedly discussed Watergate. We actually "hear" those missing minutes, which of course must be fabricated. But much of what's rendered in the novel is factual. We also get interior monologues from a variety of characters, including Nixon himself, which we might safely consider fictive until one considers that Woodward has made a career of writing non-fiction books in such a stream-of-consciousness manner without leaving any fingerprints in the form of quotation marks.

None of this is to suggest that there's anything specifically wrong or even all that unusual in what is now a well-established genre of historical fiction -- one in which Mallon is a master (I simply loved his 1995 novel Henry and Clara, which looks at the Lincoln assassination from the standpoint of a pair of minor characters in the tragedy). But more so than other works of its kind, Watergate requires a degree of mental energy and occasional recourse to Wikipedia.

Which is not to say it is without its rewards. By this point, calling Nixon a crook is shooting fish in a barrel; at the same time, the hatred Nixon aroused seems heartless in retrospect (more recent Republican presidents may well have deserved worse). Mallon steers around these poles, emphasizing the degree to which even the principals in this story operated under a cloud of ignorance, even confusion. Woodward and Bernstein are in the background, as are the protesters who can be heard in the distance. The principal voice of a critic we hear is that of Elliot Richardson, the liberal Republican and multi-cabinet officer who hoped to benefit from Nixon's fall, as both Nixon and he expected he would, much to the former's chagrin. This of course proves to be one more illusion. (Elliot who?)

If there's any one voice that serves as a protagonist, it's Fred LaRue, who, appropriately, was a mysterious figure at the time -- a man without title, salary or listing in the White House directory, but who was close to the planning of the burglary and served as a bagman to buy the silence of those arrested in its aftermath, among them E. Howard Hunt, who also figures prominently here. A wry Mississippian, he's given a backstory here involving a long lost love who helps him try to come to terms with his role in the shooting of his father many years previously.

But it's the women who make Watergate a distinctive piece of storytelling. They are, as a group, as incisive and ruthless as any of their male counterparts. That goes for Woods, typically depicted as a hapless apologist for the president, as well as Pat Nixon, who memorably recalls Dwight Eisenhower as "cheerful as Popsicle and just as cold." Hunt's wife Dorothy is portrayed as playing hardball with more verve than anyone in the White House. But the shameless scene stealer here, as she was in real life, is the octogenarian (who turns nonagenarian) Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of TR best remembered for her epigram, "If you haven't anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." Mallon depicts her as having an unusually close relationship with Nixon, rooted in a favor Nixon once did for her. In an ironic twist of the historical record, Mallon turns Longworth's well-known disgust with Nixon's invocation of TR in his resignation speech and makes it an inside joke. As Longworth well understands, she's a tragic figure in her inability to forge her fiery intelligence into much more than rapier-sharp sarcasm. But she understands Watergate better than most, and confers what comes off as a prescient benediction of sorts on Nixon.

There were times when I felt Watergate sagged, and that its sculpted omissions deprived it of a bit of narrative oxygen. But this is nevertheless the work of a writer at the height of his powers, conferring truths about the past that transcend mere factual accuracy. I suspect it will take its place of one of the truly useful accounts of the event.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Russia, with Love

Master biographer Robert K. Massie triumphs again with Catherine the Great

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

As someone with little knowledge of 18th century Russian history, I picked up (or more accurately, I downloaded) this sizable book for two reasons. The first is that I wanted to experience the work of a master popular historian at the height of his (octogenarian) powers. The second is that I wanted to gain a better grasp of American history by having a fuller sense of global context. I was rewarded on both counts.

Robert K. Massie first rose to fame a half-century ago on the basis of his Pulitzer-Prize winning dual biography Nicholas and Alexandra (1966), the basis of a successful 1971 movie. Amid other projects, he followed it up with a biography of Peter the Great in 1980. He has now filled in an important piece of the Romanov dynasty with Catherine the Great, who does indeed come off impressively in an account luxuriant with period detail.

As befitting his role of biographer writing for a general audience, Massie focuses a great deal on the circumstances of Catherine's personal life: her origins as a lowly German princess; a childhood at the hands of a passive father and pushy, ambitious mother; a painful (and probably sexless) marriage to Peter III, which ended with a palace coup that placed her on the throne; and a 34-year reign in which she collected a series of courtiers who provided her with advice and companionship (not necessarily in that order).

Given my lack of knowledge of European court politics, I found some surprising currents running through this story. The first was the relative strength of women in 18th century ruling elites. Catherine's own mentor was the Empress Elizabeth, a formidable figure in her own right who survived considerable palace intrigue to rule Russia for two decades. One of Catherine's rivals was Maria Theresa, the wily ruler of the vast Hapsburg dominions. Women, even royal women,  had all kinds of disadvantages in eighteenth century European politics, but their success showed what was possible. At the same time, it's striking to consider that no woman ruled either empire after their deaths.

Catherine governed Russia as an enlightened despot -- enlightened in some literal sense, in that she enjoyed a lively correspondence with figures like Voltaire, Diderot, and other intellectual giants of the age. But the Cossack uprising known as Pugachev's Rebellion in 1773-74, combined with the French Revolution 15 years later, cooled her republican sensibilities. She nevertheless launched an ambitious attempt to reform Russia's legal code and made an effort, ultimately unsuccessful, to improve the status of serfs in the empire. Which is a second surprise: the degree to which even an autocrat could find herself shackled by public opinion and powerful minority constituencies, limits Catherine acutely perceived. Yet she was also the beneficiary of such forces, and exploited them to good effect. The sincerity of devotion to her adopted country and Orthodox faith was evident to all those who knew her, and played a significant role in the willingness of key players in the Romanov regime to dump her husband in her favor.

Though it's a secondary theme of the book, Massie also makes clear that Catherine's reign coincided with a significant expansion of the Russian empire, both in terms of territory (at the expense of the Turks and Poles), as well as its prestige in European and even global affairs. King George III earnestly sought, without avail, Catherine's military assistance in quelling the American Revolution, and she later hired naval John Paul Jones to serve as an admiral on the Black Sea. Navigating her way through alliances with Prussia, Austria, England, she succeeded established a long-sought warm water port for the empire thanks to the efforts of her adviser and paramour Grigory Potemkin. Massie assertively debunks the belief that Potemkin's rapid development of the region was merely cosmetic, as the commonly used phrase "Potemkin Village" suggests.

I lived with Catherine the Great very comfortably over a period of weeks. Both subject and author are inspiring in the strength of their work ethic and longevity. We should all be so talented and fortunate.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Unmastered narrative

In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes shows how the past is subject to change

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.  

This novella tells an extraordinary story about a very ordinary man. The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for any number of literary reasons. But one of its most distinctive attributes is its power as a meditation on the way memory is a form of personal historiography. Our master narratives of ourselves change in light our changing circumstances -- and, every once in a while, when previously unknown information about the past prompts (sometimes painful) revisionism.

Tony Webster is a late middle-aged man: recently retired, not-so recently divorced, with a grown daughter and young grandchildren. In measured prose, he tells the reader the story of his life. Most of his tale is dominated by his youth as schoolboy with a group of three other chums in postwar England and in chronicling his first serious romance. These two strands intertwine briefly in early adulthood. That chapter of his life ends unhappily, but he gets on with it and decades later looks back with satisfaction on a career as an arts administrator and an ex-wife with whom he remains on friendly terms. Then, most unexpectedly, he is informed of a small bequest and the existence of a document that he is apparently meant to see but which is also being withheld from him. Disoriented by this set of events, Webster re-opens old relationships that shake loose the cobwebs of his memory. It's hard to be more specific than this without ruining the distinctly low-key but undeniable suspense of the story.

Barnes, who writes crime fiction under the name of Dan Kavanagh, crafts beautiful sentences and shows a deft sense of pacing. If the conclusion is not altogether satisfying, it has an aesthetic as well as mimetic coherence. Indeed the very title of the book suggests both vagueness and a kind of logic. As Barnes himself has said in a recent interview, "Life is not a detective novel." And histories, he might have added, are made to be broken.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Foul ball

In Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, Dave Zirin declares a team of plutocrats out of bounds

The following review was posted today the Books page of the History News Network site.  

Complaints about the state of spectator sports has become a virtual subgenre of journalism. Negligence and harassment by organizations like the NCAA; self-indulgent (and sometimes felonious) athletes; boorish behavior by fans: one can barely get through a broadcast, sports section, or website without encountering jeremiads in some form. In Bad Sports, journalist and radio host Dave Zirin points his finger at the owners of ball clubs in a variety of sports. First and foremost, he asserts, it's their excessive behavior that has been corroding love of the game.

Zirin's chief complaint is the way these avowed corporate enterprises get subsidies from taxpayers in building facilities and running teams, with little if any sense of public obligation or reciprocation. He argues that these arrangements never pay municipalities back, in that the jobs they create are menial, fleeting, and that new stadiums rarely attract enough visitors to amortize public investment. What makes matters worse, he says, are the way many owners then use their athletic platform as a means to promote religious, political, and other agendas.

The core Bad Sports, which was first published in 2010 and has been reissued in a new edition by the New Press, consists of a series of portraits of corporate malefactors:  George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees; Clay Bennett's Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder; Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins, et. al. These profiles in avarice use local journalism and other sources to credibly document many varieties of sordid behavior. Zirin reports that he sought interviews with all his subjects, but was almost always turned down.

While it's not hard to see why -- these people have good reasons for wanting to avoid close attention --  Zirin undermines his case somewhat in his tone. An aggrieved populism dominates. "We are owed plenty by the athletic industrial complex," he asserts in the introduction. "We are owed loyalty. We are owed a return on our massive civic investment. And more than anything, we should raise our fists to the owner's box and say we are owed a little bit of goddamn respect." But the best way to demonstrate one's feelings about an $8 beer is by simply refusing to buy one. Or a ticket, for that matter. And while it's ultimately impossible to feel much sympathy for these people even when Zirin is piling it on, one has to wonder why greedy athletes, corrupt government officials, or craven fans get a pass from his fury. He's a left-wing Rush Limbaugh, preaching to the converted.

Zirin does point to an intriguing alternative, however: he wants more teams to be publicly owned, like the Green Bay Packers. He mentions the the Green Bay model throughout the book, and comes back to it in his conclusion. But one wishes he spent more time in talking about how -- or whether -- it could be generalized. Would the Packers model work in larger and more economically stratified cities? What would the implications be for drafting and signing players?  What kind of legal and political challenges could be mounted to the National Football League monopoly? Perhaps there's another book there.

In the meantime, Bad Sports functions as a lean, mean indictment. Just make sure you have plenty of antacid tablets on hand.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Silent type

Long before The Artist won Best Picture, Harry Langdon was making his mark on the silver screen

Guest post by Imogen Reed

Think about the era of silent comedy. 

Who are the names that immediately spring to mind? Chaplin? Keaton? Lloyd? Laurel and Hardy? Of course. 

What about Harry Langdon?

Often forgotten and wrongly left off this list of illustrious performers, Langdon was a skilled and adept performer – more than capable of holding his own in slapstick film roles whilst maintaining a “sad clown” image that could turn a celluloid moment around and melt your heart.

Born in Iowa in 1884, Langdon didn’t have the impoverished upbringing of Chaplin – he was the son of a painter and decorator who managed to maintain a very large family, he was lucky in that he never had to rely on handouts or special offers from the stores in his town. But he did have the insatiable love of performing and theatre right from the get-go. He would (much to the chagrin of his mother) enter amateur dramatic competitions in local theatres, for which he won numerous prizes. No matter how hard his parents tried to steer him away from this path, he kept creeping back to it.

Finally in his early teens he ran away to join the rather wonderfully named “Dr Belcher’s Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show”, but soon returned, with the acting bug still firmly in his grasp. This was what he wanted to do; this was the journey he was destined for.  So he did what many of the silent greats did: He carved out a little niche for himself in vaudeville. Performing with his first wife, Rose, Langdon honed an incredibly successful act which the couple toured with for many years – they worked both together and as solo artistes in their own right to great acclaim.

In terms of his film career, Langdon was by the standards of the time a latecomer to the medium, only making his first films in 1923 in a series of short two reelers, working for Sol Lesser under the direction of Alf Goulding. Eventually signing up with the legendary Mack Sennett later that year the initial films he made were possibly not suited to the skills he had gained through years in the theatre and touring. See this clip from Picking Peaches.) In 1924 he really made his mark with a short film entitled The Luck O’ The Foolish, and from this film onwards he managed to find his footing as  a loveably naïve, childlike character – someone who was imbued with the grace of Chaplin, the Keaton gift of perfect slapstick and Lloyd’s head for heights and stunts. 

Most artists eventually left the control of Mack Sennett – and Langdon was no different. He wanted to make the move away from two reelers into longer, more expressive films with more of a concerted storyline. This he did, in 1926 with probably one of his more famous outings Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, in which he gets to showcase all of his talents. It’s a delightful little story, in which he falls in love with a local girl called Betty – and ends up mistakenly entered into a cross-country walking contest. The film sets up some lovely little moments of slapstick – in particular, the one showcased in the clip above in which he is on the edge of a precipice hanging onto a fence panel. His face, so expressive and so childlike, is a study in exactly how silent films should be acted. Comic perfection.

Landgon made two other really notable pictures, The Strong Man and The Long Pants. But he was now in a difficult working relationship with Frank Capra, and the films he made with Capra, while good, were often over-produced and over budget. Langdon was unhappy with these problems and became a victim of them when Capra was fired over Long Pants. Langdon moved on.
In 1929 Langdon made the move to the studios of Hal Roach (most famous for his work with Laurel and Hardy). The talkie era proved a frightening time for many actors and actresses who were worried that acting styles would have to change and also more pressingly whether their voices would actually be recordable. The added challenge of having a microphone placed in your line of view (or sometimes directly over the top of your head) meant restricted movement and sometimes stilted conversation. Langdon’s voice was described as “falsetto,” the result of poor treatment for an illness he’d suffered as a child. Although he took on many small roles for Hal Roach and continued to work in the movies for a good few years after silents became extinct, he never reached the heights he had done in the times of his slapstick heyday. In this clip from one of his films Tied For Life, released in 1933, you can see how his style altered with the advent of microphone technology. It was more or less the end of his career.

Langdon died in 1944.  He was just 60 years old. His contemporaries, Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin all lived into the 1960s and 1970s (long enough to see their work revered and relived in all its glory, and to enjoy a second chance at fame). Langdon did not. Of course, the three aforementioned gentlemen deserve every bit of the reverence; their work is unsurpassed in its brilliance.  It’s just unfair that the work of Harry Langdon has never had the proper revival it needed.  His childlike insouciance, babyish features and impish little smile fitted into a niche that other actors couldn’t match. It’s time this wonderful actor and performer was given the recognition and merit he requires.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The souls of Streep

The following post is the last in a series on Meryl Streep's vision of American history, part of a larger set of case studies.

In the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, Amy Adams is Julie Powell, a young arrival in 2002 Queens who decides to launch a blog in which she writes about preparing all 524 of Julia Child’s 1961 book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. Her story alternates with that of Streep as Child in the 1950s, and the series of events that culminate in the publication of that book. Julie Powell is pleased by the increasingly positive attention she gets for her work, which will result in her own book (and, eventually, a movie). But toward the end of the film she learns from a reporter that Julia Child herself is contemptuous and dismissive Powell, though we never learn exactly what she said or even whether Child actually ever read her blog. Julie is crushed to conclude that the will not only never meet her now 90 year-old inspiration, but will never get her approval, either. “The one in your head is the one that matters,” her husband consoles her.
As someone who has spent time writing about famous people he’s never met, I’ll confess that this scene had some personal resonance for me. Analyzing the careers of celebrities evokes a range of emotions, among them admiration, longing, distaste, and shame (can’t you generate your own material rather than relying on somebody else’s?). Notwithstanding the rejection I’ve experienced, and the fear of it that has prevented me from pursuing the people I’ve been writing about in this book, I have nevertheless soldiered on in the belief that it’s the work—their work, and the work I’ve done to build on it in this modest way—that finally matters, if for no other reason than keeping me out of any number of forms of trouble. There are, after all, worse ways of spending time than in the virtual company of movie stars.
But one of the things I’ve learned from Meryl Streep is that her work is not finally about her, or about me. Instead, it’s really about other people. The great paradox of actors is that by embodying fictive people they enliven real ones. In her 1998 appearance on the TV program Inside the Actor’s Studio, Streep explained this with spontaneity that’s worth quoting at some length:

I was thinking about applying to law school and thinking that acting is a stupid way to make a living, that it doesn’t do any good in the world. But I think it does, I think it does, there’s a great worth in it. And the worth is in listening to people who maybe don’t even exist or who are voices in your past and through you come through the work and you give them to other people. I think that giving voice to characters who have no other voice is the great worth of what we do. So much of acting is vanity. I mean, this [appearing on the show] feels so great to come here and sit here and have everybody clap. But the real thing that makes me feel so good is when I know I’ve said something for a soul, when I’ve presented a soul.

            In terms of the overarching argument that frames this book, I would describe Meryl Streep’s historiographic vision as that of a progressive feminist. I say that because the arc, the non-straight but clear line that runs through her work, is one in which the lives of women have gradually improved.  They get more power over control of the terms in their lives, power that begins at home but eventually moves outside the home. That power has precedents in the past in the lives of those who illuminated the way, but most of it is something whose emergence she charts in the history of our time. To a great degree, this realized dream is a substantively American one, grounded in aspirations that transcend gender. But realized dreams are also surprisingly complicated ones, with unexpected consequences, ambiguities, and unfinished work.
As her comments also suggest, Streep’s historiographic vision has a powerful moral component, and a belief in a living connection that binds people across time and space that she describes in terms of the transcendent term “soul.” Sister Aloysius would probably not approve of this use of the word. But Streep blessed her anyway.