We Were Not Alone

Seems like science fiction, but for a long time, Homo sapiens were not the only human beings on earth. And there were a lot of them. And they lived in a very large area that included most of Europe, much of Asia, and probably, in many other places, too (but we haven’t yet found the evidence). They were far more sophisticated than you might imagine, very similar to our own kind as we evolved, in parallel, from about 350,000 years ago until (fairly recently?) until about 40,000 years ago. If we extended our individual family trees back to that time, most or many of us would find parents, aunts, and uncles, and plenty of cousins who were Neanderthal or mixed with our own kind, and quite likely, mixed with other early humans, too (and, probably, other species). This is not some exotic scientific story. This is the story of our own lives. And no less messy.

This morning, I happened to see a cartoon drawing of two large bears inspecting a minivan. On the back window of the vehicle were stick figures of a human family. One bear remarks, “Look! A menu!” It’s not easy to study the Neanderthals, or other early hominids, because they were eaten, destroyed in battle and accidents, burned, and buried. In fact, buried is good–if you know where to look. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to find bones, tools, settlements, but not many of them. Still, it’s a start, and we’ll no doubt find a lot more throughout the 21st century as we improve our satellite imaging (for example). In the meantime, scientists and historians have figured out some parts of the puzzle. Bear in mind that humans have been pursuing archeology for just over 150 years–and for the first 50-100 years, there were a lot of questions about validity, integrity, and there was astonished disbelief because humans (and their religions) didn’t want to consider the possibility that we were not alone as a human race. Getting past the idea of a “missing link” between humans and apes was, and perhaps remains, a problem, too. And this is made more complicated because Neanderthals are “extremely similar creatures to us” but “many simultaneous pathways existed, some finishing in dead ends, others like Neanderthals developing their own unique bodies and minds that were a match from our own.”

I’m quoting Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a remarkably talented storytelling and scientific historian whose book, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is an absolute delight. She keeps the story interesting (fascinating would be a better word), piling on the historical details, open questions, likely facts, and the vast vastness of things we don’t know. I love that.

So far, we’ve found about 250 Neanderthal bodies, or enough parts and pieces of bodies to develop some ideas about their lives. We will certainly find a lot more. Their brains and our brains–about the same size (“just as big and deliberating as your own”) Their brow–more expansive than ours. Their babies’ chins–less prominent, so our babies are, or were, probably cuter than their babies. Their eyes–bigger than ours, noting that “people from higher latitudes have eyeballs up to 20 percent bigger than those from near the equator.” Their ears–very similar to our own, inside and out. Their noses–certainly larger, so they could “snort in the air at almost twice the rate we do.” But why? Here’s the speculative layer that’s found throughout the book–questions about whether the larger nose provided greater airflow, more air filtering and conditioning, or a more powerful or refined sense of smell. “…in some ways, Neanderthals’ large internal structures resemble reindeer and saga antelope, which have extensive mucous membranes to reduce dehydration and heat loss…[but] the internal structures in Neanderthals appears to be worse at air conditioning than our own.”

There’s a strangeness about discovering Neanderthal life expressed in time and distance. They lived for several hundred years in an expanse from Spain to Siberia. When something is discovered about a particular body or settlement, one must consider not only where it was found but also when. That’s because cultures and communities are always in motion–so a place-based assumption may, in fact, be more of a time-based assumption. Think in terms of discovering a human body from the Middle Ages in France and another from two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and making statements about their dental care, or their diet. Assumptions must be carefully considered. Now, expand the time scale from a thousand years to twenty thousand years–the assumptions become that much flakier.

Tools: “More artisans than klutzes, [Neanderthals] appreciated the right tools for the job. Selecting hammers…was crucial. Small cobbles have the necessary mass to hit hard for big flakes, but for more delicate work, pebbles are better. And using soft rather than hard hammers produces different effects. Elastic organic materials like antler and bone or even dense rock like limestone spread out the kinetic energy and produce thinner, longer flakes…Tools were often retouched, sometimes to give a particular edge, but often to resharpen them–flakes dull very fast even when cutting meat.” So: yes, Neanderthals made and used a variety of tools for a variety of purposes, just as we did, and do today. This suggests the range of activities they pursued–hardly anything as simple as hitting a bear with a wooden club, though they may have done that, too. They used wood to make spears: “far from pointed sticks…finely crafted from thin spruce and a single Scots pine, their tips are all at the stump end: the hardest part. The shafts were systematically carved off-center for increased strength…Experiments show that the shorter-throwing spears easily range to 30 meters (30 yards).”

Their diet was varied. “Beavers’ fatty tails would have been succulent treats…they certainly gorged on tortoises…dolphins, seal and large fish…ticks and lice might have been nibbled while grooming hair…Neanderthals hunted [bears] more than other predators…burning hints at cooking right there in the den.” They ate plants, too–pine, mushrooms, moss. They cooked stews. They soaked acorns, then boiled them, a far more sophisticated conception than eating only raw meat. They fermented food, one of many examples of planning and preparation.

I could go on through where they lived, how they raised their children and families, the art they made, their customs and care for the dead, and more. There is so much in KINDRED, and so much of it is captivating. And I am so looking forward to the next book from Ms. Sykes. I have found a new favorite author.

Akin to the Internet, circa 1920

One version of our story begins in 1874, midway between Cleveland and Buffalo, about 20 miles inland from Lake Erie, on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. Another version begins a half-century earlier, in 1826, in a town called Millbury, just south of Worcester, Massachusetts. The third takes shape in 1904 in Iowa and Nebraska, in part because small towns could now be reached by the railroads out of Chicago.

Here’s what happened.

“In an age when most Americans had acquired only a grade school education,” two educators who were involved with Sunday schools “recognized the power of education to elevate, enlarge and enrich lives.” They were Reverend John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who had become Secretary of the Sunday School Union, and Lewis Miller, a former teacher who became a businessman (farm machinery) who served as the Superintendent of Sunday School and at his church and President of the Board of Education in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Together, on the pretty shore of Lake Chautauqua, they put together a conference for 2,500 Sunday school teachers for two weeks during the summer of 1874, mostly to listen to lectures and seminars about religion. When they did it again the following year, they added music from the Tennesseans, who sang plantation songs from the American South, and non-religious lecturers, notably President Ulysses S. Grant (he had been a former parishioner at Miller’s church in Illinois). A year later, there were lectures about chemistry, geology, and astronomy.

When I visited Chautauqua in 2014, I wrote about the experience. If I had stayed the full nine-week season in 2019, I would have attended lectures by public radio’s Krista Tippett and Ira Glass; Middlebury College President Laurie L. Patton; comedians David Steinberg and Lewis Black; author and activist Bill McKibben; writer and author James Fallows; author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes Dan Egan. I would have gone to concerts featuring Judy Collins, Madeleine Peyroux, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Diana Ross, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; and a lot of vocal and chamber groups whose names are unfamiliar. I would sit in on each morning’s lecture/sermon by a notable Chaplain, watched performances of several operas (The Barber of Seville, and Figaro), and just walked along the beautiful shore. If you’d like to imagine what you would have done, every season since 2007, follow this link and enjoy. They are now planning their 2021 summer season. And they’ve introduced an online version that I’ll write about in the future; it’s called Chautauqua Assembly.

Yes, it’s amazing that this bit of 1870s culture remains vibrant and remarkably successful 150 years after it began, but that’s only part of our story.

Now, let’s jump back to the late 1820s and 1830s–where the roots of today’s public radio reside (GBH began just ten years later). Somewhat similar to today’s TEDTalks, the Lyceum circuit provided lecturers to more than 3,000 theaters and public spaces all over the country. There were big stars on the circuit: Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and other U.S. Presidents, and lots of lesser-knowns. But there was a problem. No air conditioning. No climate control for hot indoor spaces during the summer–so the Lyceum circuit was, mostly, a wintertime activity. Until one day…

Keith Vauter, who managed western states and territories for a booking agency that supplied the Lyceum Circuit with talent, decided to try a new approach. The Chautauqua concept in upstate New York had inspired summer chautauquas in other places. He figured he could book his talent during the summer, and expand his business. His first attempt–in 1904–failed because the logistics of moving so many performers to so many locations was just too expensive. As Vauter improved the logistics and came up with a way for local communities to guarantee the cost of their own chautauqua, the concept took off. Borrowing ideas from traveling circuses, vaudeville, and theater troupes, they devised what became a very popular idea: the traveling chautauqua. At least until 1929, when a combination of talking motion pictures and the Depression more-or-less ended the fun. For about 25 years, traveling Chautauqua “served to provide small towns with a deeper sense of self, community, nation, the world, and God. They spanned the silent movie era, the Progressive Age, and the transportation shift from horse-and-buggy to automobile.”

There is great wisdom in the chautauqua movement, and in the Lyceum movement, and in their intermingled roots of what has since become radio, television, some of the Internet, some of the entertainment industry, and more. When I started to become curious, I found two extraordinary experts who knew the culture and the whole story. The first was Harry P. Harrison, who was among the first “platform superintendents” for the new Chautauqua circuit way back in 1903. He wrote, or dictated, a book to co-author Karl Detzer, a professional writer; it’s called Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua (published in 1958; I found an autographed copy for $3 in a used bookstore). The second is newer, written by a college professor who worked with music students in summer Chautauqua for many years. It’s called The Traveling Chautauqua, and the author is Roger E. Barrows. The material quoted in this article comes from that book.

So: what was it like, going to a tent chautauqua for a week in the 1920s?

From Missouri’s Joplin Globe: The most famous Chautauqua speaker was the founder of Temple University, Russell Conwell. Conwell is said to have given his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,150 times between 1882 and 1925. Much in the spirit of self-improvement found in chautauquas, Conwell emphasized that developing his talents and skills is what made a man successful — or diamonds could be found in one’s own backyard. He and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan were two of the most sought-after speakers.”

Harrison tells stories about the many performers who helped make his career. Barrows breaks it down by type of performer, provides many more pictures, and also includes excerpts from their scripts.

“Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sweeps onto the stage. She is a large woman whose presence dominates the platform. Her rich voice, with its wide range…begins with the spring aria from the Saint-Saens opera, Samson and Delilah.” (“When the movement began in 1874, all music was live.”) “To the perpetual spinning sounds of the piano, Madame Schumann-Heink becomes Gretchen at the spinning wheel, expressing her mounting heartache as she comes to realize the emptiness of Faust’s promises…Schubert’s art song travels from the Austrian metropolis of Vienna to the small towns of Texas and Ohio…The artist would later recount how, in the midst of her signing, she could hear the mooing of cows…”

Bohumir Kyrl, who had played with Sousa, conducted his own popular band and became a star performing on cornet. College girls, on an adventure for the summer, would sing classical, art, and popular songs. The Jubilee Singers (the Fisk University group was one of several) would “harmonize a cappella;” “they had heard tales of slavery from their parents’ laps, and…had personal experiences with racism, (as they expressed) the “anguish and sorrow of the original singers.” There were authentic Indian princesses who performed on piano, sang songs, and shared legends of their people. The Raweis were Native New Zealanders on tour through the American hinterlands. At a time when actors were not welcome in God-fearing small towns, Lucille Adams was an “interpreter,” also called a “reader,” who read and spoke expressively, but didn’t quite “act.” In time, the circuit tried a Shakespearean acting troupe led by Ben Greet, a legitimate Shakespearean actor, and they became popular, famous, and well-traveled, introducing Shakespeare’s work to audiences who had never seen anything quite like it. Eugene Laurent was a popular magician on the circuit.

There were cooking lessons, many lecturers who specialized in a loving life at home, and plenty of preachers. Billy Sunday was a former professional baseball player who converted to evangelical Christianity and became one of its most famous spokespeople. Lots of souls were saved in the chautauqua tents, of lives transformed. Many religions were represented; Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation helped non-Jews understand his religion.

One of the most famous speakers relied upon religion with a more old-time flavor, not only for his tremendous success on the circuit but also as the basis for three runs for U.S. President–William Jennings Bryan, at the time, one of the best-known American citizens. (You’ll recall his name and presence from the Scopes Trial and the play, Inherit the Wind). Reformer Jane Addams was on the circuit in 1909 and 1919. Women’s suffrage was a hot topic on the circuit, too. Jeanette Rankin often spoke about that–she being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

From 1909 to 1912, Peter MacQueen talked about his adventures hunting for big game with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. Around the same time, Frederick A. Cook spoke–more than 350 times–and claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole (Peary was second). Booker T. Washington spoke about progress through education at chautauquas around 1914, and a few years earlier, Florence Mayrick talked about her life in an English prison. When the chautauaqua was in town, everyone was elevated, educated, and thrilled. Truly, this was something special in towns where not much special happened very often.

And then, it was over. This huge chunk of American education for adults, and for the entire family, just went away. Radio took its place with an even wider variety of education, religion, entertainment and more. And then, television, and then, the internet.

The best way to experience a chautauqua is to buy a ticket for several days, or longer, for the original that still runs in New York State. The second best, which may be pretty darned good, is to find yourself a local chautauqua like the one that the Wythe Arts Council runs in Wytheville, Virginia, or the weekend festival in Madison, Indiana, or the one that feels intentionally old-fashioned in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, an old B&O Railroad town and former resort that was, in the day, home to an original Chautauqua traveling show. As soon as things open up again, they’re on my list–and if you know of any others, please add them to the comments below.

AND–for even more fun–check this out! It’s an industry trade magazine from June 1922–and it’s chock full of advertisements, news stories, photographs, listings of booking agents, and so much more. The magazine is called Lyceum Magazine: For the Lyceum and the Chautauqua.

Seeing 10 Years into the Future

Somehow, even in the shadow of the virus, we can see 2030 with surprising clarity. We know a lot, and we can make good guesses about much of what we don’t know. In fact, I’ve been doing this for several years, traveling the world, speaking to university audiences, explaining how and why Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are the places that today’s students must study because of their enormous population increases and their associated growth as consumer markets. I’ve been focused on the lives and futures of young people growing up in the 21st century, much of it connection with Kids on Earth, a global interview project, and my work as a Senior Scholar at The University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, it was a browse through a UPenn newsletter that led me to Professor Mauro F. Guillén, a colleague at UPenn’s Wharton School. About two months ago, Guillén published a book entitled 2020: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. My interest in children, teenagers, parents, and schools; his is business, economics and government, but our circles overlap with plenty of shared space.

For both of us, the key to the secrets of the 21st century is the number of babies being born, where they are being born, the number of people who are living long lives, and where they are living those lives. He sets the stage with the rapid growth of the world’s population: 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, 5 billion by 1987, 6 billion by 2000, and 7 billion by 2010.

And then: “The reality is that by 2030 we will be facing a baby drought.”

Take a closer look: “for every baby born in the United States, 4.4 are being born in China, 6.5 in India, and 10.2 in Africa” and “improvements in nutrition and disease prevention in the poorest parts of the world have made it possible for an increasing number of babies to reach adulthood and become parents themselves.” And so, by 2030: “South Asia (including India) will consolidate its position as the number-one region in terms of population size. Africa will become the second-largest region, while East Asia (including China) will be relegated to third place. Europe, which in 1950 was the second largest, will fall to sixth place, behind Southeast Asia…and Latin America.”

If 21st-century governments were more open to immigrants, the trends could equalize, but they’re going in the opposite direction–limiting incoming populations from countries whose people they need in order to maintain not only sufficiently large populations but also sufficiently young ones. That is, Europe and The United States will become increasingly old–which is terrible for the economy (the success of Social Security in the U.S., for example, relies upon income from the younger population, which disappears if there aren’t enough babies and aren’t enough immigrants). As we make these (okay, the correct word really is “stupid”) decisions, we are making an economic and social mess for ourselves.

It’s always instructive to study maps. One of my current favorites compares the size of the African continent with various countries. If you move the countries around like jigsaw puzzle pieces, you can fit all of China into the part of Africa that’s south of the equator, with all of India and all of the United States, and Eastern Europe, and France, Germany, and Spain, and still find enough space on the continent for The U.K., Japan, Italy, Switzerland, and a bunch of other countries. It’s not easy to think clearly about Africa, or any other place unless you understand its size, its history, and its potential for the future. Incredibly, people in the countries listed above know very little about Africa (challenge yourself: how many African countries can you name? how many cities?)

Perhaps women will think more clearly than men have done. This is the other huge trend: women graduating from higher education, with more advanced degrees than men, and gradually gaining power in both industry and government. They marry later–average age of first time mothers is now 28 years old. For example, “in the 1950s, about 7 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 had a college degree, half the rate of men. Nowadays, the proportion of women with a college degree is 40 percent, while the figure for men is only 32 percent.”

Now, let’s think about old age. People really are living longer–science, medicine, biotech, nutrition, hygiene, education, social programs–everything contributes to longevity. “By 2030, the average 70 year old will live like today’s average 50 year old.” We’ll be aided by robotics, and devices that make it easier to climb stairs, maintain balance, diagnose disease more quickly, and more–all of this takes shape during the current decade. In many ways, this is driven by necessity. For example, “by 2025, Japan will need 1 million nurses the country currently doesn’t have.” In the U.S., as in most countries, “about 90 percent of paid senior care is done by immigrants”–but our present-day policies are limiting the number of available workers. If Japan solves the problem with robots–a significant current effort–perhaps the U.S. will benefit.

Forget about “keeping up with the Joneses.” Now, we’re “keeping up with the Singhs and the Wangs.” Forget about your current notions of cities as a great place to live and work. (We’re seeing this in the real estate market as many people leave the crowded cities for locations with fewer people, less crowding, and increasingly excellent services.) Many cities exist near bodies of water, and with climate change, water levels are rising, and storms are causing chaos. Also on the subject of water, several cities in India are illustrating a nasty future in which water supply is insufficient for population needs. (“A majority will face formidable challenges related to pollution, congestion, and security. The cities most exposed to climate change will suffer from a shortage of freshwater and an excess of saltwater.”) Less so, perhaps, for food needs as vertical farming is becoming to take hold. And yet, some cities are flourishing–even during the pandemic, and hopefully, afterwards–because of creative class and knowledge workers–but these are precisely the folks who can work just about anywhere.

Present-day assumptions about ownership may be giving way to newer assumptions about sharing (a phenomenon slowed by the pandemic). Assumptions about the ways money and banking work are also taking shape in new ways–look at the progress made by PayPal, Venmo, and credit cards in a marketplace where so many people are now reluctant to handle paper currency and coins. We may be seeing the end of non-digital money by 2030.

I like the quote from William Faulkner that begins the end of the book: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” So here we are, stuck in the pandemic, questioning whether we all ever return to the old normal, strikingly unaware of so many of the realities already in the “high likelihood” category for 2030. We’ve already lost sight of the shore; we just haven’t accepted that reality.

The author’s suggestion that we “approach uncertainty with optimism” may be the only approach that makes sense in what is now a fairly crazy world of the future.

The Constitution Song

Excellent work by an old friend and his creative team. The Constitution Song is the first project for Tublius™, an initiative by Peter Shane to popularize the history and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution through online photographic, video, musical, and prose presentations.

Please take a few minutes to watch, learn about the Constitution, and its vital importance. Then, share.

We will make progress in November if everyone adds their voice today.

Thankfully, there is a website that comes complete with the lyrics and explanations. Sure wish I had something similar for Hamilton! For example…

Add your voice!

Add your voice!

Add your voice

To the Constitution Song!

Americans whipped the British and secured their independence.

  • The American Revolution was fought between 1775 and 1783. The colonies declared their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.
  • That didn’t guarantee a country fit for their descendants.

The states at first agreed to just a loose confederation.

  • The first version of the United States of America operated under an agreement among the states called, “The Articles of Confederation,” written in 1777 and ratified in 1781. It described the union as a “league of friendship” among sovereign states. The Articles authorized a one-House Congress to conduct foreign policy, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, Congress lacked the power either to raise taxes or to regulate commerce. There was no separate executive branch to enforce the law, and Congress could create no courts other than admiralty courts.

They didn’t have the unity it takes to forge a nation.

So four years after wartime,

  • The American Revolution is generally dated from 1775, with the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, until 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the Constitutional Convention took place in 1787. The Battle of Yorktown, the decisive last battle of the war, was actually fought from September 29 to October 19, 1781. With the help of the French, George Washington was able to lay siege to the army of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, eventually surrounding them with artillery until Cornwallis was forced to surrender. It took fifteen months, however, to agree on all treaty provisions, in part because the American alliance with France and the French alliance with Spain meant that a full armistice required Britain to reach acceptable terms with all three countries.

Philly saw a secret meeting

  • Following a navigation dispute with Maryland, Virginia called for representatives of all the states to convene at Annapolis on September 11, 1786. Only five states showed up, however, and so, as suggested in a report drafted by Alexander Hamilton, they wound up recommending a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia to consider potential improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Philadelphia delegates were fearful that, given the precarious state of the Confederation, premature publicity of tentative proposals might doom the Convention to failure and discourage the delegates from speaking freely and even changing their minds as discussions proceeded. They decided to close the doors to the public and agreed to a pledge of secrecy, which apparently was all but entirely kept.

Of men who knew without a change, their freedom would be fleeting.

Their government was feeble. It needed a solution.

In sixteen weeks, they hammered out a U.S. Constitution.

  • The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

(and so it continues…)

Watch the video. It’s fun! And the guy you’ll be learning from, well, he’s among the best there is.

Number Five

Finally! A good biography of the fifth U.S. president, James Monroe!! When I started reading presidential biographies, in order, I figured there might be some patches where no decent and recent biography would be available, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a hard stop at number five. Tim McGrath to the rescue–with his 586-page doorstop, James Monroe: A Life. After I read what turned out to be a strong, well-written biography, my appetite wasn’t sated. After reading Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, David McCullough’s John Adams, John B. Boles’ recent Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty (which I reviewed in 2017), Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, along with books about John Marshall, also reviewed here, Hamilton, and others,  I realized how little I knew about a man who was very much a part of the founding story, but then disappeared–Aaron Burr. Fortunately, I found a very good (used) book, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg. Now, the pieces of the puzzle fit together in a way that makes more sense to me. I have much more to learn, but Burr was a missing piece for me–and I’ll thank multiple viewings of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical for piquing my curiosity.

Let’s start with Burr, the man who might have been our fourth, or perhaps, our fifth U.S. president. In fact, Burr was very much in “the room where it happened” throughout much of his political career–a mover and shaker who managed to pull himself up from tragedy, as Hamilton did. Both men were serious political operators, very appealing, with active sexual lives–Burr kept a diary of his sex life, apparently not unusual at the time. Burr was born entitled. His father was the first president of what became Princeton University, and when he died, Aaron Jr.’s grandfather (his mother Esther’s father), the preacher Jonathan Edwards, took the job. Shortly after, young Aaron nearly died but somehow survived. Months later, his mother Esther and her father Jonathan were gone, followed by Esther’s mother, Sarah. The story begins, as it does with Alexander Hamilton, with our hero as an orphan. And, as with his real-life rival Hamilton, Burr becomes a distinguished attorney, supports a Revolutionary War general (though Hamilton’s prestigious connection with Washington outshines Burr’s with Stirling), and becomes deeply involved in New York State politics, and the national scene. Eventually, Burr becomes the nation’s third Vice President–to Jefferson–but there’s a problem. Jefferson does not wish to see Hamilton as the nation’s fourth President; instead, he prefers his friend and neighbor, James Madison. This complicated storyline eventually places James Monroe–who was closely allied with both Jefferson and Madison, as Number Five. Along the way, all of these dudes made incredibly stupid decisions in their personal lives but figured out how to build and grow a new nation. Over more than two centuries, mythology overwhelmed the Burr story, and Professor Isenberg gets a lot of credit for weeding out the nonsense and trying to set the story straight.

Burr didn’t think much of Monroe–“he called the last President in the Virginia Dynasty ‘naturally dull & stupid–extremely illiterate,’ ‘indecisive…pusillanimous & of course hypocritical,” and “observing that he never ‘commanded a platoon or was every fit to command one.” And… “as a lawyer, Monroe was ‘far below Mediocrity…” His ‘character exactly suited… the View of the Virginia Junto,’ which “maintained itself on sycophancy instead of recruiting men of “Talent and Independence.” Jumping from the book about Burr to the book about Monroe, Burr’s criticism was bombastic and colorful, but it contains a fair amount of truth.

The problem with Monroe is that he was more of an ordinary man than a legendary character–and he was our first president with that particular characteristic. Author McGrath makes the best of that situation and tells a good story about an essentially good man’s life in the midst of revolutionary change and a new nation.

For example…18-year old Lieutenant Monroe crossed the Delaware River with General Washington. Interesting story: in December 1776, while leading his men, as quietly as possible, from the landing site down into Trenton, a dog barked, and the dog’s owner, John Riker, came out to see what was happening. When he heard the men’s Virginia accents, he welcomed them as revolutionaries, offered them food, and insisted on joining them in Trenton. Lt. Monroe did his best to dissuade Dr. Riker because he was losing valuable time and did not want to show up late for the sneak attack on the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. Riker came anyway. Monroe was wounded by a cannonball; it opened his chest. Dr. Riker saved his life.

Monroe’s family was prosperous and well-connected, but his parents died while he was still a teenager. He had some land, an interest in speculating in more land, rather poor financial management instincts, an interest in law, and a knack for politics. By 1787, he was a member of the Virginia state assembly, and by 1790, he was a U.S. Senator. Politically, he stood with Madison and Jefferson (his former law instructor), against the forces of Adams and Hamilton. Three years later, he was the U.S. Minister to France, skillful in rebuilding and managing relationships in Paris, but often overwhelmed because he was often excluded from policy discussions, and never quite figured out how to work his way back into the conversation–and anything he did try to accomplish created problems with the Federalists. When Adams became president, Monroe was recalled, and shortly after, became Virginia’s governor.

When Madison finished his second term, Monroe was ideally positioned to become the fifth president. By that time, the U.S. and Britain were again at war, and there was no guarantee that the United States would remain viable as a unified nation. Author McGrath describes some astonishing scenes of “Washington City” in ruins as a result of successful British attacks–and Monroe’s attempts to keep government and family together, and safe. As the war fades from view, Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, and a somewhat out-of-control general Andrew Jackson push the Spanish away from Florida and consolidate power while building relationships with newly independent South American nations. Seeing opportunity and potential political salvation, Aaron Burr’s meanderings weave in and out of the story, more so in Isenberg than in McGrath, another reason to read both books together.

In short, the Monroe book is a well-told story of a transition–the era of the founders is fading, and Monroe represents their last huzzah, and the era of U.S. expansion is beginning in earnest, as the U.S. begins to become, if not a world power, than a controlling influence on its hemisphere. And that helps to explain how and why Monroe was able to issue a doctrine to stop the Europeans from messing around in our part of the world. Think of his doctrine more as a capstone, less of a disruption. The world was moving on.

A post-script: The University of Virginia’s Miller Center offers a fine biography of James Monroe, in several sections, on its website. In fact, the work on Monroe is a small part of a massive biographical, historical and contextual series of essays about every U.S. president: Life in Brief, Life Before the Presidency, Campaigns and Elections, Domestic Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Death of the President, Family Life, The American Franchise, and Impact and Legacy.

 

 

The RSA: Climate Change Requires Immediate Attention

I’m always impressed with The RSA’s animations. This one was just released. It tells an important and urgent story about climate change. Acknowledging the nastiness of dealing with two catastrophes at the same time, this video runs less than five minutes–and the visuals bring the topic to life.

Be safe, everyone.

Jeffrey Sachs Talks about the U.S. and the World

 

Sachs sees the world very clearly. After watching these 11 minutes, I know more about the world than I did before.

For a more comprehensive explanation of multilateralism, I refer to this Brookings article.

Holmes, the Law, the Author and the Reader

For years, I’ve been curious about Oliver Wendell Holmes. His name seemed to show up in other people’s biographies, and I knew he was an important U.S. Supreme Court Justice, but I didn’t know much more. That’s why I was excited about reading a relatively new biography by Stephen Budiansky.

After early chapters about growing up wealthy and connected in Boston, the son of a famous father, the younger Holmes and his Harvard buddies sign up to lead a Civil War regiment and make a complete mess of it. “The officers [Massachusetts Governor Andrew] chose for the Twentieth [Regiment] read like a page from Boston’s social register…one-half of the regiment’s officers literally were Harvard graduates and at least two-thirds were drawn from the city’s social elite. None had military experience…”

What could possibly go wrong? They found out at Ball’s Bluff, “the first place they could face fear and death the courage they knew was expected of them…” However, “most performed with extraordinary bravery in the midst of the chaos and bungling leadership for which Ball’s Bluff is primarily remembered by military historians today. A military disaster…” Holmes was seriously injured and narrowly escaped death, but hundreds of others, including officers, were not so fortunate. It is a crackling good war story–the first of several, in fact, as we move from Antietam to Fredricksburg to Chancellorsville– and a most unlikely first act for a man mostly known for his work some forty years later as an independent-minded justice on the high court.

Unfortunately, the author attempts a fairly balanced look at Holmes’s whole life. In many biographies, that would be the best approach, but here, Holmes’s many friendships with rich women, in the U.S. and the U.K. fill so many pages, the distraction outdistances the narrative value. Granting the importance of context, even a tenth as much would have been sufficient.

Reading about the war experiences set my hopes high for the author’s discussion of Holmes’s life on the court. Sadly, more than half the book and two-third of his life are gone before Oliver Wendell Holmes becomes a Supreme Court justice. Certainly enough for a deep dive.

Seeking clarity on Holmes’s thinking, his approach to the law, his most important cases, I struggled. I do not believe this to be a failing of the book, but instead, my lackluster background in the law. Many of the cases seemed to turn on technical details and fine points, so the overview and thrust were difficult to grasp. I loved the relationship between young Felix Frankfurter, a good friend mentored by Holmes and deeply affected by his approach to judicial restraint. Frankfurter later became a Supreme Court justice as well. Stories about the warm relationship between Holmes and Louis Brandeis, who served alongside Holmes, and also became both an ally and a good friend. To see the Supreme Court justices as human beings, good friends who care so deeply about the underlying structures of democracy was thrilling.

Still, I kept coming back to the deliberations, the opinions, the cases that were so much a part of Holmes’s daily life, and the country’s decision-making processes, for three decades. (He served until 1932.) Consulting Wikipedia for a review of his most significant court cases, feeling as though I’d learned too little by reading an important book, I confirmed my self-assessment.

And that leaves me with a question. Is it the job of the reader to come to a well-written, well-researched biography of a significant U.S. Supreme Court Justice with an understanding of legal philosophies and cases from a century ago, or is the job of the author of such a book to hold the hand of an ill-informed student (me) to make certain that he or she comprehends the subject’s thinking and accomplishments, knowing full well that the reader (also me) is likely to read the book and then move on. Move on not to a book about Brandeis or Frankfurter or another Justice, but to Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Timesand then, probably, Robert Caro’s Working, with an Ian Stewart math/science book (perhaps Flatterland, or Visions of Infinity) or, more likely, conductor John Mauceri’s For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening. With some poetry, some short stories, and probably a fiction book or two or three along the way? Did I fail because I didn’t take the time, or did Budiansky fail because he didn’t inspire me to read and learn more? I’ll take responsibility. And I will learn more about the Supreme Court, the Justices, and their thinking, but I may need another decade or two before I come around again.

A City of Books

Although the idea of writing a book about books and bookstores for people who enjoy books seems to be both precious and redundant, I find browsing, then reading, these books to be irresistible. The newest in this genre is A Booklover’s Guide to New York, by which author Cleo Le-Tan and illustrator Pierre Le-Tan seem to mean not the state of New York, nor most of the city of New York, but instead, the island of Manhattan. And that’s just fine: few places on earth contain a richer assortment of delights for people who love books.

The book is set up as a combination of a tour and a series of conversations. The first stop is The Mysterious Bookshop, down in TriBeCa, relocated from further uptown, accurately described as “a homey destination” and “a haven for any crime, suspense and thriller reader.” Next page: an interview with Otto Penzler, who owns the shop, and founded Mysterious Press back in the mid-1970s. It’s fun to read his back story–so many people who live in NYC have a backstory–after he started the publishing house, and it succeeded, he decided to open a shop without knowing anything at all about starting or operating a retail enterprise. What was the key to success?: women started writing popular mystery fiction, and that attracted more female readers. He describes Manhattan as “ground zero” for mystery.

Within walking distance: Poet’s House at 10 River Terrace, which has been operating for three decades, “still prides itself on “bringing world-renowned poets to new audiences. And: Richardson, at 325 Broome St., owned by Andrew Richardson, who also publishes a magazine (same name as the shop), with a selection that is “either deeply intellectual, aesthetically pleasing, or highly sophisticated.” And sometimes, erotic. This is not just a book filled with pages about bookstores; the Seward Park Library is one of several public libraries. Opened in 1909, it’s located in Chinatown, which tends to be busy much of the day and night, but here, there is quiet. And a lot of books. And all of the modern conveniences. Museums get their due, too. The first is the Tenement Museum, located at 103 Orchard Street (all of the places in this paragraph are walkable from one another, but subways and buses can shorten the travel times). The museum offers guided tours of life more than a century ago in lower Manhattan, a time when poor European immigrants lived in close quarters. Of course, it includes a specialist bookstore.

Let’s head to midtown. It’s a healthy walk, about two miles north, but it’s quick and easy to hop on the subway. Mostly, this is a busy business district with lots of skyscrapers. My favorite bookstore–the Gotham Book Mart–is among the many shops that are no longer there. But there are plenty of places to visit, and perhaps, buy even more books. If you’re staying overnight, there’s the Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue at 41st Street, one of a growing number of hotels with their own collections of books for guests (these are popping up all over the world). The Morgan Library & Museum is a notable Manhattan landmark, and “originally the private library of one of America’s most notable financiers, Pierpont Morgan.” The Morgan also hosts special book-related events and other arts events. It is simply a stunning place. Even more fun: The Drama Book Shop, filled with scripts, scores, and all things theater. Under new ownership–Lin-Manuel Miranda and several of his Hamilton cronies–a new shop opens soon. A short walk leads to the main branch of The New York Public Library, at 42nd Steet and Fifth Avenue, with its awesome map room, classic reading room, and so many places you’ve seen in magazines and in movies. Next, it’s over to Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44 Street, where “right after World I, a group of rather intelligent and witty twenty-something New York writers, critics, and actors, and nicknamed themselves ‘The Vicious Circle,” and included NY Times theater critic Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood.

As time and interest allow, there’s John Steinbeck’s apartment at 190 East 72 Street, walkable but again, a subway is faster. And if you want to further explore Manhattan’s Upper East Side, check the schedule for the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, because there are often authors and various performers on stage discussing their work: in March, the list includes novelist Zadie Smith, Maria Kalman on her new book about Alice B. Toklas, film director Barry Sonnenfeld talking about his new book with Jerry Seinfeld, E.J. Dionne, Hilary Mantel, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on their new book, a lot of musical performances, and more. Right nearby: La Librairie des Enfants, a charming lending library, and an informal community center. Also in the neighborhood: Kitchen Arts & Letters at 1435 Lexington Avenue, offering not only cookbooks but tons of books about food history and related topics

What about the other boroughs? Sure, there are a few pages about the Bronx (2 pages, plus a good interview with local author Richard Price), Brooklyn (The Center for Fiction–moved after two centuries in Manhattan, The Central Library, which is not part of the New York Public Library but a magnificent enterprise of its own) and Queens (a lovely story about fulfilling the need for neighborhood bookstores–Kew & Willow Books).

There are some photographs, but they tend to be small and suggest snapshots. Better are the pen-and-ink illustrations that do not attempt to support the text in a literal way. Instead, the pictures provide a sense of place, offer little piles of books and the occasional bookworm. Think about the use of spot illustrations in the New Yorker magazine–but add spot color.

 

(Note: New Yorker illustrator Pierre Le-Tan died in October 2019.)

 

 

 

TIME’s Youngest Person of the Year–Before Greta Thunberg

I decided to do some counting. So far, Greta is the youngest individual TIME Magazine Person of the Year.

Before Greta, can you figure out who the holder of the “youngest individual” was? Here are several possible answers:

– Mark Zuckerberg
– Queen Elizabeth II
– Mahatma Gandhi
– Wallis Simpson
– Charles Lindbergh

I will publish the correct answer in the next blog post.

But while we’re all paying attention, I did notice that the vast majority of winners have been older white men: 73 in all. During that same period, there have been just 6 females–and including Greta, just one other female since 1987. (Yes. TIME should probably question its processes). She was:

– Margaret Thatcher
– Elizabeth Warren
– Hilary Clinton
– Angela Merkel
– J.K. Rowling

Again, look for the correct answer in the next blog post.

One final thought: during the past few years, and throughout its history, TIME has given the honor to, for example, The Computer, The Endangered Earth, and the Ebola Fighters. Who was Greta’s immediate individual predecessor as Person of the Year?

– Barack Obama
– Donald Trump
– Nancy Pelosi
– Beyoncé
– Tim Cook

Answers to come.

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