Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rightly forgotten

In How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, Jon Wiener looks a story whose ending keeps getting rewritten

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

Jon Wiener has spent much of his career at the intersection between journalism and academe, in the process enriching both. Actually, his specialty has long been chronicling the life of the mind in the contemporary United States in books like Politics, Professors and Pop (1991), Historians in Trouble (2005), and the recently published e-book, I Told You So, a collection of interviews with the late Gore Vidal. In his latest book, How We Forgot the Cold War, Wiener makes his most systematic foray into the historiographic sub-discipline of collective memory with a counterintuitive look at a recently concluded chapter in American life.

The book is counterintuitive in a number of ways. One is that you don't often find a historian who can barely contain his glee over the way an entire society seems engaged in a process of "forgetting" the Cold War. As he makes clear, however, what's being forgotten is not the Cold War itself so much as a neoconservative interpretation of it. Which is also counterintuitive, given the way the political right has dominated national discourse in the last generation and has been able to literally institutionalize its views. Insofar as it has been remembered, Wiener shows how Cold War memory has in many cases been displaced -- folded into the history of World War II, for example, or cast in terms of a saga of (radioactive) environmental sustainability. This, too, is counterintuitive: Wiener shows us a series of historical sites that say they're about one thing but in fact show themselves to be about another.

Finally, what's counterintuitive here is that way Wiener takes a collection of what are essentially travel pieces -- the heart of the book consists of 20 approximately ten-page essays on specific Cold War museum exhibitions (plus one on the 1998 CNN documentary Cold War) and fashions them into a cohesive piece of scholarship. These essays range from the amusing "Hippie Day at the Reagan Library," where the counterculture lives on in the land of the Gipper, to "Cold War Elvis," where Sgt. Presley makes an appearance at the General George Patton Museum (and, we learn, scares the East German authorities more than the Third Armored Division ever did). He also includes a number of pieces involving nuclear waste that suggests anxieties continue to linger long after the reasons for such weapons, and their supporting infrastructure, have been dismantled.

In every case, Wiener manages to weave together closely observed reporting about the personalities he meets and the exhibits he sees along with more analytic prose that contextualizes those exhibits historiographically. There's a kind of rhetorical locution that surfaces again and again that runs along the lines of "This is what (conservative) ideologues have said, but this is not what we're shown." The refrain is quite effective in driving home the point at hand. It's also effective in conveying the broad tenor of Wiener's own perspective on the Cold War, strongly in the vein of the William Appleman Williams revisionist variety.

There were times in reading the book when I wondered if we in fact needed as many examples as we did to get Wiener's point, and I did find myself wondering at times -- as Wiener notes critics of the CNN documentary asserted -- whether leftist scholars were a little more willing to, say, cut the (typically pragmatic) Soviets more slack than the (typically hegemonic) Americans in events like the Cuban Missile Crisis -- but he makes his argument with as much clarity as any scholar I've read. Even better, he does so concisely; any one of the the chapters in this book would make an excellent piece of reading for classroom discussion. How We Forgot the Cold War is as welcome a contribution to the literature of memory generally as it is the Cold War in particular.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The black frontiersman

The Day-Lewis Lincoln: (racial) trailblazer


The following piece is running on the home page of the History News Network

Though I enjoyed writing my forthcoming book Sensing the Past more than any I've undertaken in many years, there was an element of desperation in my desire to finish it quickly. The project, which looks at visions of history in the career choices of powerful Hollywood actors, was originally sparked by the work of actor Daniel Day-Lewis, in which I discerned a surprising pattern. The problem was that I knew fairly early on that Day-Lewis was preparing to star in a new movie about Abraham Lincoln, and everything I could see about that project suggested it was going to subvert my cherished little theory. So I wanted to get the book done and out around the time the movie was releasedboth so I could ride its coattails, and also so I could escape a requirement to explain it. If I was lucky, that would be my problem in a preface for the second edition.

As I explain in the book, the quintessential Day-Lewis character is a frontiersman, even when that frontiersman is disguised as a gang member (or an elite lawyer) on a New York City street. He is, always, a man apart—someone at odds with the institutional arrangements that surround him (and I do mean surround in the military sense of "besieged"). If he is to survive, which in many cases he does not, his protagonists must move to the margins, finding a place on the outskirts of society. In this regard, Day-Lewis characters are remarkably like those of an actor who some cineastes may well consider his antithesis: John Wayne. Wayne was no one's idea of a method actor, and his politics would appear to be a continent apart from a Day-Lewis who is widely regarded as a liberal darling. And yet both men have tended to play Moses figures who point the way toward promised (or lost) worlds they themselves can neither enter nor reclaim.

You can probably see how difficult it would be to insert lanky Abraham Lincoln into this framework. Lincoln was the ultimate institutionalist, a man who believed passionately in the ability of the people, in the form of democratically elected governments, to work together and solve social problems. (In my book it is Tom Hanks who represents embodies this view most vividly in contemporary cinematic culture.) Lincoln was deeply invested in the notion of compromise, a man who tried desperately to find common ground despite circumstances where Americans were more polarized than they ever had been. Even when Lincoln took a firm position regarding the Civil War, as he did immediately with preserving the union and ultimately in ending slavery, he continued to insist on striving toward malice toward none and charity for all. Other Day-Lewis characters are not that generous.

I loved Lincoln—how could anyone with a feeling for the man be moved, if not awed, by Day-Lewis's performance?—but I squirmed my way through it, reminded how hard it is to understand living figures who have the annoying habit of refusing to stand still and allow us to pigeonhole them. (I can be interpreted as referring to the immortal Lincoln, though my focus for the moment is the mortal Day-Lewis.) The actor may well have embarked on a new phase in his career, in which he plays kindly, optimistic people who offer a message of hope, even if they must be martyred. At least that part of the argument remains intact, thin as it seemed to me.

But when I awoke the morning after seeing the movie I saw that there was a way in which my theory at least partially applied: Day-Lewis's Lincoln was a racial frontiersman, one who far-sightedly pointed the way toward a future where white people could begin to accept black people as citizens—and eventually much else. Although there are countless ways director Steven Spielberg could have rendered this story, the one he chose focused on a month-long period in 1865 where the Lincoln administration steered a recalcitrant House of Representatives to pass the bill that would eventually become the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery. As we see, this was an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, not only because racism continued to prevail as the common sense of the day, but also because even Lincoln's allies were suspicious of his motives. (Tommy Lee Jones plays a remarkably nuanced Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who is typically cast as a villainas he was in the thinly veiled portrait of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nationor lionized as a uniquely principled egalitarian. He and Lincoln exchange some wonderfully incisive and utterly believable volleys, thanks to Tony Kushner's fine screenplay.) 

This Lincoln understands, as few of his fellow Americans really do, that the amendment is crucial for the future of the republic. At one point in the movie, Kushner has Lincoln do something I'm not aware he ever in fact did, but which seems entirely in character: make a legal case against the Emancipation Proclamation he issued two years earlier as a wartime measure. Listening to this skilled lawyer make his opponents' case, you begin to sense the Great Emancipator has something of a guilty conscience over having done something he himself believes may well have been illegal, even as he knew it was morally right. Lincoln knows the Emancipation Proclamation is as vulnerable in a court of law as it is in the court of public opinion, which is why he's determined to exploit the fleeting moment of a lame-duck Congress and ram a bipartisan bill through it. 

This Lincoln is no saint. One of the comic subplots of the movie (involving a surprisingly corpulent James Spader) involves the less than wholly savory tools of persuasion used to convince grasping legislators to see the light. In his willingness to engage in political dirty work, this Lincoln exhibits a rugged pragmatism that shows him to be more tough-minded than the Radicals led by Stevens as well as the Conservatives led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook, who himself has played Lincoln) who want peace at any price. Nor is this Lincoln portrayed as a paragon of racial enlightenment (one way in which Stevens gets his due). There's a fine exchange Lincoln has with his wife's African American personal dress designer, Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) in which he freely professes his ignorance about black people. Day-Lewis achieves the miraculous feat of showing us a vitally alive Lincoln inhabiting the world in which he was given, while simultaneously confirming a perception, that many though not all of his contemporaries had, that he was a uniquely gifted man out of time. A Moses who let other people go. One of whom now inhabits that big white house.

I don't want to press my point too far here. That's not only because of its inherent limits—there are many ways to understand this movie and Daniel Day-Lewis's place in itbut because artists and scholars are both diminished when the latter try too hard to slot the former into their theories about the way the world works. The point is to open windows, not shut people in. That's what Lincoln did. That's what Day-Lewis does. That's what I, in my own small way, hope to do.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From city to country

Franklin, a city boy, became the toast of an empire before founding a nation

The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
There’s one other aspect to Franklin’s life that’s worth mentioning in the context of the self-made man: he was a lifelong city resident. In addition to Boston and Philadelphia, he also spent a substantial amount of time in London and Paris, making him among the most urban and urbane citizens of a nation that not only had few cities of any substantial size, but which to a significant degree derived its identity as anti-urban (as Thomas Jefferson fondly hoped it would long remain). Before Franklin, the self-made man was a decisively pastoral construct. After him, all roads to self-making, even those traced through the woods of Walden, ran through urban thoroughfares and infrastructure.
It was Philadelphia, of course, that was the itinerant Franklin’s adoptive hometown – perhaps all true city boys hail from elsewhere – but he was born in a city, too. The Boston of his childhood was the largest city in the colonies at the time of his arrival in 1706. With approximately 7000 residents, it was hardly cosmopolitan by European standards, but even as an adolescent he was able to participate in the civic culture made possible by its sense of relative scale. Apprenticed to his brother James, who published the first independent newspaper in America, Franklin entered public life through a back door. Knowing James would not allow him to appear in print any other way, the sixteen year-old wrote a series of letters masquerading as a middle-aged widow by the name of Silence Dogood. (The moniker was a play on two works by the great Puritan minister Cotton Mather, whose promotion of smallpox prevention by the experimental method of inoculation was ridiculed by the Franklins.) A delighted James published fourteen of the letters before discovering they were written by his kid brother, one more source of friction in what was already a tense relationship. Franklin broke his apprenticeship by leaving town, gaining passage on a ship bound for Philadelphia by claiming he was fleeing pressure to marry a girl he had impregnated.
 The Philadelphia in which Franklin arrived in 1723 was only four decades old but already on the way to becoming the second largest metropolis in the English-speaking world. Far more than Boston, Philadelphia was a site of critical mass for his protean talents, a place where (after a two-year detour to London) he turned thought into action. The list of his innovations is truly stunning: Franklin played a crucial role in establishing a lending library, fire department, hospital, university and other institutions in Philadelphia, many the first of their kind in North America. He was an important figure in organizing military defense in the colony of Pennsylvania, served as the first postmaster general of the colonies, and made a series of technological innovations that included a wood stove, bifocals, and the musical instrument known as the armonica. He also proved that lightning is electricity through an ingenious experiment that involved flying a kite. Decades before virtually anyone else took the idea seriously, Franklin argued for inter-colonial cooperation in America, correctly calculating that the population of the colonies would overtake that of Great Britain within a century.
All the while Franklin was doing good, he was also doing well. His various civic activities as well as the social club he founded (the so-called Junto) provided contacts that led to lucrative contracts. One major source of revenue in the printing business was government work; the fact that Franklin was a tireless advocate of paper currency was not totally unrelated to the fact there was money to be made in printing it. By the latter part of his business career he was franchising his operations, setting up printers in multiple locations and reaping the rewards of such investments.
In the two decades prior to the American Revolution, Franklin’s primary vocation was politics. Elected to the Pennsylvania assembly in 1751, he took the lead in challenging the Penn family’s conduct in managing the colony’s affairs (amid the complex countercurrents in imperial politics, he was among those pushing for more royal control of Pennsylvania, which supporters believed would be less onerous than its status as a proprietary colony of the Penns). He continued these efforts in his five-year stint as a colonial agent in London between 1757 and 1762, returning there late in the decade to resume his post as a lobbyist. One conspicuous absence in his life among his travels was his wife, Deborah – he met her the day he first arrived in Philadelphia – who preferred to stay home, and who died while Franklin was abroad. Their relationship nevertheless seems to have been companionate one (they had two children, one of whom survived to adulthood), as was Franklin’s relationship with the illegitimate William, whose career he promoted until their falling out in the mid-1770s.
For most of his life, Franklin was a patriotic Briton, whose sense of national pride was reinforced by the many friends he had in England and his strong identification with the country amid its multiple global conflicts with France. But as frictions intensified in the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1754-63), Franklin was increasingly aware of the degree to which Americans like himself were regarded as second-class citizens in the empire. Yet even when he disagreed with imperial policy, as he did with the imposition of the taxes collectively known as the Stamp Act in 1765, Franklin nevertheless supported the government and even recommended a friend take a job as a revenue collector. (Big mistake: the Stamp Act provoked widespread riots and endangered the life of anyone who tried to enforce it.) His alienation, which intensified in the early 1770s, reached a turning point when Franklin was given a series of letters by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, who was secretly urging the British government to take a harder line with the colonists. Franklin turned the letters over to a New England newspaper, which published them. Amid the uproar that followed, Franklin admitted he was the source of the letter and subjected to a withering cross-examination in Parliament in early 1774. From that point on, the septuagenarian Franklin reinvented himself once again as an insurrectionist.
Franklin’s roles in the ensuing decade and a half – midwifing the Declaration of Independence; brokering a treaty with France; presiding over the Constitutional Convention, all performed with the avuncular panache that has made him a durable national icon – are well known. (Indeed, they obscure a career that would have been considered impressive had they never happened.) Though by this point Franklin hardly needed the publicity, it’s clear that the Revolution was the capstone of a career in which he repeatedly demonstrated the dazzling possibilities for upward mobility in America.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Self-made mans

Benjamin Franklin, postmodern identity artist

The following is part of a series of posts on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American history.

            In June of 1757, the fifty one year-old Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the second time in his life to begin a new career as a lobbyist representing the colony of Pennsylvania (as well as New Jersey, Georgia and Massachusetts) in London. Before leaving America, the retired printer wrote a valedictory essay, “The Way to Wealth.” Franklin had himself won wealth as a publisher of almanacs, a commonly produced publication in colonial America, appealing to printers because they were cheap, timely, and popular. Because he writes with such disarming simplicity, it’s worth quoting his autobiography on his experience in the business:

In 1732 I first published my Almanack, under the name of Richard Saunders; it was continued by me about twenty-five years, commonly called "Poor Richard's Almanac." I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand that I reaped considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who brought scarcely any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality as the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly as, to use here one of those proverbs, it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

“The Way to Wealth,” published in 1758, was in effect Poor Richard’s Greatest Hits. The essay was a string of classic aphorisms like “There are no gains, without pains”; “little strokes fell great oaks”; and “the eye of a master will do more work than both his hands.”
Actually, precisely because much of it reads like a list, it’s easy to overlook the deceptive simplicity of “The Way to Wealth,” which is in fact a document of marvelous complexity. Its framing device is “the harangue of a wise old man to the people attending an Auction,” to the narrator. Nevertheless, it begins on a note of self-congratulation. “I have heard that nothing gives an author so great pleasure as to find his Works respectfully quoted by other learned authors,” Saunders says, wryly noting that his competitors have somehow managed to be “very sparing in their Applauses.” Fortunately, however, he happened to pause near a merchant venue, where “a plain clean old man” was dispensing the thrifty wit and wisdom of Poor Richard to a crowd of listeners.
As Saunders narrates it, the ending of the story is not entirely satisfactory – or, at any rate, expected. When the old man, named Father Abraham, is finished with his disquisition, Saunders notes “the people heard it, and approved the Doctrine, and immediately practiced the contrary, just as if it had been a Sermon” (a little dig at religious morality here). Still, he concludes, “The frequent Mention he made of me must have tired anyone else, but my Vanity was wonderfully delighted with it.” He acknowledges “that not a tenth Part of the Wisdom was my own which he ascribed to me, but rather the Gleanings I had made of the Sense of all Ages and Nations.” But he decides to benefit himself from the wisdom he has purveyed to others: “I resolved to be the better for the Echo of it; and though I had first determined to buy the stuff of a new Coat, I went away resolved to wear my old one a little longer.” He signs off “as ever, Thine to serve thee, RICHARD SAUNDERS.”
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here:  A fictive crowd is responding to a fictive speaker quoting a fictive writer – more like a fictive admitted plagiarist – who is moved to take his own advice, recorded in a piece penned by a man named Benjamin Franklin. (To complicate matters still further, there was an actual Richard Saunders who published almanacs in the seventeenth century, who Franklin adopted as an alter ego.) We could call Franklin a fiction writer, but that somehow doesn’t capture the elusive essence of a man who was both real and recognizable – his personality leaps off the page here and elsewhere centuries later – and who repeatedly over the course of his life reinvented himself. You might say Franklin was the first self-remade man in American history.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him a self-made men. Franklin has long been known, and lionized, as the patron saint of American capitalism, a role he played to the hilt as a young man. The key word here is role; Franklin was acutely aware of the difference between appearance and reality, and leveraged them for maximum effect, as when he made a show of carting rolls of printing paper in a wheelbarrow down the streets of Philadelphia, rather than having a hired hand do it. [Isaacson 54] But Franklin’s sense of self-invention went well beyond the world of commerce, evident in his decision to wear a fur cap as an American diplomat in Paris, because he knew it pleased the French to think of him as the embodiment of the frontiersman. [2] After 1759 his friends in the scientific community knew him as “Dr. Franklin,” but his degree was an honorary one from the University of St. Andrew in Scotland, and Franklin was always more of the technological tinkerer than the pure scientist.
Don’t get me wrong: Franklin was truly a remarkable man, one with an exceptionally wide range of skills, social ones prominent among them. My point is that he seems eerily prescient in his postmodern self-awareness, an aptitude he exploited to maximum effect over the course of his lifetime and in the autobiography he addressed to a son from whom he would be tragically estranged in the last fifteen years of his life (Governor William Franklin of New Jersey sided with the Tories in the American Revolution). No history of the self-made man could ever credibly been written without featuring the sage of Philadelphia as the founding father of a national myth. To a great extent that’s because he was the first great master of the modern media in American history.
But for all his elasticity, Franklin finally and decisively embodies a specific version of the self-made man. He’s neither a spiritual figure like Roger Williams – indeed, one of the more notable aspects of Franklin’s career is the way in which he bent the precepts of a Puritan childhood in the service of avowedly secular aims – nor a prophet of the soil like Jefferson. For sure, he’s a vibrant archetype in the rise of American capitalism. But it’s a particular kind of capitalism: mercantile capitalism, as opposed to industrial capitalism or finance capitalism. Franklin is the apogee of the entrepreneur on a human scale, a hands-on exemplar of private enterprise –
– and, more to my point here, public enterprise. This is an aspect of the self-made man that has been too easily overlooked. Even in the phase of his life where he was most focused on making a living, Franklin was engaged in a deeply social line of work: (“as ever, Thine to serve thee”). His gaze was fixed on neither hearth nor heaven, but rather on the public square. He worked hard to become rich, but that was a means to an end: making enough money to retire (in his early forties) and focus full-time on the civic pursuits that had been a big part of his life all along, among them science, philanthropy, politics, and diplomacy. Yes: Franklin was a businessman. But that’s never all he was. His life marked the arrival of the golden age of the self-made man, an era of expansion in terms of what the concept meant and who could pursue this particular form of happiness. 

 Next: Franklin as city boy

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Tale of Two Towns

With The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling solidifies her standing as a modern-day Dickens

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

Though her identity as fantasy writer somewhat obscures her literary lineage, J.K. Rowling is, as a number of observers have noted, a very Dickensian writer. The most obvious similarity is her penchant for evocative names; Dickens monikers like Pip, Gradgrind and Scrooge have their analogue in those like Potter, Snape, and Voldemort. Like Dickens, Rowling has a gift for crafting memorable characters, which brush with caricature but remain vivid. Like Dickens, too, she writes big, sprawling novels with multiple subplots that converge with tremendous narrative drive. Both writers told their stories serially, Dickens through periodicals, Rowling via steadily growing novels conceived and executed in installments.

And both Dickens and Rowling are finally moralists at heart. Though her politics are what we Americans might call conventionally liberal, they have a genteel quality that echoes the Victorians, not in a sense of prudery, but rather a belief that human nature is sufficiently plastic to be redeemed by the reforming tendencies of enlightened social policy (once enlightenment meant religious uplift; now it means pluralistic uplift). When Rowling writes in her latest novel of a neglected child "not accustomed to being given what he wanted, and disobedient by habit, because grown-ups were arbitrary in their wrath and their rules, [and] so he had learned to seize his tiny pleasures wherever and whenever he could," the implied indictment sounds like something straight out of Hard Times.

The name of that latest book -- much promoted as Rowling's first adult novel -- is The Casual Vacancy. It's a title with barely concealed irony. The vacancy in question is anything but casual; actually, it's more like a casualty. Rowling's Harry Potter novels were hardly strangers to grave situations and adult sorrows. But they did not feature drug addiction, adultery or (conventional) child abuse. Still, fans of those novels, many of them former children, will find much to like about this one.

The story opens with the sudden and unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council in the English town of Pagford, beyond the perimeter of metropolitan London. Pagford is not, however, immune to the challenge of big-city problems; it abuts, and shares some political jurisdiction with, the neighboring Yarvil, a poorer town whose welfare programs siphon off Pagford tax dollars, much to the chagrin of some local residents. In the aftermath of Fairbrother's death, a series of characters with names like the (avaricious) Simon Price and (obsessive-compulsive) Cubby Wall jockey to contest a seat that otherwise might easily go begging.

It becomes clear over the course of the story, however, that Fairbrother's seat is, in an important sense, impossible to fill. His death opens up real wounds and holes in Pagford, particularly when a group of adolescents with separate reasons to be angry at their parents hack their way into the council website and begin making sensational allegations about them for public consumption as "the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother." The consequences of these acts begin to ping around the town in ways the adolescents scarcely anticipated. (One is reminded here of Tom Wolfe, who writes similarly sprawling stories exquisitely attuned the the nuances of race and class status, as Rowling is here -- a few of the major characters in Pagford are Sikh). For a while, it seems like the various strands of the story are headed toward a slapstick denouement, but Rowling's earnestness refuses to allow that. The novel begins and ends on notes of tragedy; her reformist sensibility takes the form of a cautionary fable rather than a morality tale with a neat resolution.

There's a middlebrow quality to The Casual Vacancy that may make some readers impatient.  But as with Dickens, there's a surprising toughness beneath the sentiment and humor. "Who could bear to know which stars were already dead," muses one character late in Rowling's novel, looking up at the night sky and contemplating the concept of light years. "Could anybody stand to know that they all were?" Perhaps not. But everybody has to stand knowing they all could be. And it's what people do with that incomplete knowledge that makes the world, and pages, turn.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Washington's "Flight" from authority

A veteran actor rewrites an established script

Over the course of the last thirty years, Denzel Washington has played a notable variety of roles: leading man and aging man; hero and villain; emblem of his race and Everyman. Yet to a truly striking degree the various roles he's chosen -- and here's it's worth noting that as one of the most blue-chip actors in Hollywood, he's long enjoyed considerable power in this regard -- revolve around two key relationships: mentor and --> protégé. Early in his career (Carbon Copy, Glory) he was a literal or figurative son; in more recent roles (John Q, The Great Debaters) he's been the literal or figurative father. In Malcolm X, he managed to play both, the disciple of a religious movement as well as a role model for others. This is no coincidence: for decades Washington has been a spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. in  Since the turn of the century, Washington has expanded his cinematic vision of mentoring in new racial and gender directions. In Man on Fire, he was a surrogate father for the white child played by Dakota Fanning; in Unstoppable he was the steady hand in a crisis with Chris Pine.

All of which makes Washington's latest star turn, as an airline pilot in the newly released Flight, so surprising. He plays William "Whip" Whitaker, whose daring maneuver navigating a malfunctioning plane allows most of its passengers to survive the ordeal. Such impressive competence is not unusual for a Washington character. Nor is the fact that he's a flawed man -- in this case, an alcoholic and drug addict who made that landing in a state of plural intoxication. Washington has played troubled and ethically challenged people before (notably as a corrupt copy in Training Day, for which he won an Oscar, in part no doubt by playing against type) and American Gangster. What's different here is the degree to which we see the limits of power for a Washington character on his own terms. It's not simply that he can't save all the passengers -- a fact that puts his career in jeopardy when evidence of his altered state surfaces. Even more significantly, his character tries, and fails, to mentor multiple people.

The first example that we see comes early in the movie with his younger white co-pilot (Brian Geraghty), who is earnest and anxious about the storm into which the two men are flying -- and anxious about his boss as well. Whitaker shows real leadership in a moment of crisis, but cannot ultimately prevent disaster from befalling his lieutenant, who later interprets the situation very differently than Whitaker does. While recovering from his injuries at an Atlanta hospital, Whitaker also befriends an attractive young drug addict (Kelly Reilly) and later rescues her from an abusive landlord at the very moment she's to become homeless. Whitaker gives her a floor, literal and figurative, which we she can rebuild her life. But his own addictions make it impossible for him to play a constructive role beyond that, which he clearly wants to do.

Washington's character character fails a much more fundamental test not, as a figurative father but a literal one for his own son (Justin Martin). Actually, the father's main role is to prompt the son to stick up for his mother (Garcelle Beauvais). Father and son will ultimately experience a rapprochement, but it's not quite the family reunion Hollywood convention typically dictates.

Not that Flight is an especially unconventional movie. Director Robert Zemeckis is a technically accomplished filmmaker with evident skills in telling this story. You know pretty much right away that Whip Whitaker is headed for a reckoning, and you know pretty much right away that it's going to be one that happens on his time and on his terms, in good Alcoholics Anonymous fashion. Whip Whitaker is a rugged, if shambling, individualist. Hardly shocking in the broader context of film history. But Denzel Washington rarely is. Moreover, Washington is not content to leave it at that this time around. His larger point in taking this role appears to be that personal accountability is insufficient -- a necessary precondition for an authentic life, but not adequate on its own terms. In Flight, it seems, sooner or later you must go home again, notwithstanding any necessary detours. This involves accepting limits -- among them the limits of leadership.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Observing the Boss

Peter Ames Carlin writes a landmark biography of Springsteen

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Of the dozens of books written about Bruce Springsteen -- including one by yours truly -- this unauthorized biography is the most important. In large measure, that's because Peter Ames Carlin is the first author since rock critic Dave Marsh to get access to Springsteen, as well as his family, friends, lovers, and business associates, for a book-length study. Marsh's Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (1979) and multiple sequels are the work of an unabashed partisan whose wife has long been involved in managing Springsteen's career. Carlin, by contrast -- author of the highly regarded Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of Beach Boys' Brian Wilson (2006) -- is an avowed outsider. He spent years researching the book before the Springsteen's organization decided he was legit, and unlocked previously shuttered subjects and people. That vote of confidence has proven well-founded.

There had been buzz in the publishing business a couple years ago that Springsteen himself would be writing a memoir, which seems to have abated. Whether or not that happens, this book, which includes interviews with ailing or dead people central to Springsteen -- among them his mother Adele and longtime sidekick Clarence Clemons -- will be the standard work for those who consider themselves serious fans.

The major events of Springsteen's life have been so thoroughly raked over by journalists, scholars, and fans that it appears there would be little to add. But one aspect of Bruce that stands out is Carlin's coverage of Springsteen's early life. (I met Carlin at a conference last month, and spent an afternoon with him in Freehold, New Jersey, ground zero of the Springsteen legend.) I'd long suspected that the powerful mythologizing instinct surrounding Springsteen and his followers has somewhat exaggerated the humility of his origins, particularly since at least parts of his hometown have a leafy suburban character. But Bruce makes clear that material deprivation was indeed a fact of life in a childhood where neither heat, hot water, nor a secure ceiling could be taken for granted.

Perhaps more importantly, Springsteen's psychic life was haunted by shadows -- of the aunt who died as a child in a bicycle accident; of a father who struggled with manic-depression; of a mother and aunts who experienced downward mobility when their father was imprisoned for embezzlement during the Great Depression, and who may have been involved in organized crime. Spending the first years of his life principally in the care of paternal grandparents with little interest in the rhythms of middle-class life (they didn't really see the point of sending him to school), Springsteen's childhood was one of odd hours, silent companionship with taciturn relatives, and peers who, while generally not hostile, nevertheless regarded him as Different. Under such circumstances, a desire to belong competed with a singular intensity that focused around rock & roll music, the cultural explosion that coincided with his childhood and which represented the most obvious avenue of personal expression in a family that afforded few others.

There's no explicit interpretive argument here of the kind one would expect in a formal academic study (one that would be called Springsteen instead of Bruce), but a recurring implicit theme threads the narrative: the problem of the democratic genius. Whether or not he belongs in a pantheon that includes Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, even observers who are not particularly fond of Springsteen or his music would concede he is impressive as an autodidact and a celebrity who has largely conducted himself with shrewdness, tact, and generosity. But in positioning himself in the tradition of an Everyman tradition that stretches from Walt Whitman through Woody Guthrie, the fabulously rich and famous Springsteen has attempted to thread a needle that neither of these heirs ever experienced, and which has posed a seemingly endless prospect of contradiction, if not hypocrisy, even within the capacious boundaries of a capitalist system that Springsteen has always accepted, if with strong reservations. Springsteen's singularity was apparent to some early in adolescence; it became unmistakable by the time of Born to Run, when he was a mere 25 years old. With the release of Born to in the USA in 1984 (I'll note that three quarters of the book is over by the time a reader gets to this point), this tension has been the defining issue of his career.

No one has been more aware of the dilemma of the democratic genius than Springsteen himself. He has occasionally acted in ways that blur the line between principle and petulance, illustrated here when he lashes out at an employee who presents him with gourmet food, a roadie who solves a logistical crisis by cleverly using limousines to transport equipment that could be moved no other way, or  his childhood Catholic school, where where he performs a benefit concert but insists on singing a song about the joy of oral sex, an act that seems more vengeful than playful.  Though they never dominate the narrative, we encounter a series of girlfriends who lament their status as the second most important relationship after his muse (former wife Julianne Phillips maintains impressive discretion, and is rewarded by an ex- who emphatically blames himself for the failure of their marriage). We also meet band members who wince, chafe, and occasionally express the anger that results from a good life that depends on a Boss who belabors decisions, likes to play his cards close to his vest and will fine those who break his rules. "I was driving [everyone] crazy because I knew I could," he has said of the making of Born to Run, in an expression of calculated self-insight that has marked recent Springsteen pronouncements. "I was a dangerous man to be around."

In his exchanges with Carlin, which apparently involved reporting back what others have said for a reaction, Springsteen consistently downplays such conflicts, or expresses surprise when the recollections of others differ from his own. But he rarely insists on his version of a story as the right one. The man we meet in these pages is a three-dimensional human being, who I'm sorry never to have met but less sorry that I've never worked for or depended upon, even as I acknowledge that his standards of decency are a good deal higher than most, and perhaps virtually all of those in a comparably elevated position.

"Trust the art, not the artist," Springsteen said many years ago, and I have taken this truism to heart along with many other, more arresting assertions he has made in the last forty years. At this point in my life, I know his art like the back of my hand (even as I occasionally make discoveries about both). I never took for granted that I really knew Bruce Springsteen, at times genuinely happy for a sense of mystery that made my world bigger. But I'm glad to meet the figure who appears in Carlin's portrait, who inhabits a world that's recognizably my own, even if it's lived at a distance. It's good to get an account of him from an author who managed to sidle up to the bar and strike up a conversation.