Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mirror Image - Houston and Lincoln

It’s an old-fashioned study in contrasts, to look at the two of them, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston; both political giants, both of them a linchpin around which a certain point of American history turned, both of them men of the frontier. The similarities continue from that point: both of them almost entirely self-educated, as lawyers among other things, and from reading accounts by their contemporaries, it is clear that each possessed an enormous amount of personal charm. In modern terms, both would have been a total blast to hang out with. In their own time, however, each of them also acquired equally enormous numbers of bitter enemies. In fact, for a hero-founder of Texas, Houston attracted a considerable degree of vitriol from his contemporaries, and a level of published vilification which was not bettered until Lincoln appeared on the national scene as the presidential candidate favored by the north in the 1860 election. And both of them had ups and downs in their political and personal lives, although it’s hard to argue that Lincoln’s personal story arc was anything as eventful as Houston's, who appears as the ADHD child of Jacksonian-era politics.

But they were also opposites in at least as many ways as they were similar. The family of Samuel Houston had some pretensions to property and gentility, whereas that of Lincoln had not the slightest shred of either. Born in 1793, Houston was just barely old enough to have served actively in the War of 1812. He seems on that account to have been representative of an earlier generation than that of Lincoln, a generation only a half-step removed from the founding fathers. He came to the notice of Andrew Jackson, and thereafter spent much of his life when not strolling up and down the corridors of power, loitering meaningfully in the vicinity. He served variously in the Army or state militia of Tennessee, as an Indian agent, in Congress and as elected governor of Tennessee. He was married three times, was an absolutely legendary drunk and lived with the Cherokee tribe for a number of years on at least two occasions. He was brave, impulsive and addicted to flamboyant gestures and attire, being talked with great difficulty out of wearing a green velvet suit to one of his inaugurations as the President of independent Texas. He was also, to judge from portraits and photographs a very handsome man, resembling a rugged Colin Firth on a bad hair day.

Houston’s enduring legend was established as the hero of Texan independence; just another one of those footloose adventurers, drifting in during the 1830ies. Like those whose names would be soon written in letters of blood and gold – Bowie, Crockett, and Travis, he was under a cloud, and Texas would be their redemption. Unlike the other three, he would survive the experience. Some of Sam Houston’s cloud was of his own making. He went from a disastrously and very publicly failed marriage, leaving his term as governor of Tennessee and going on what appeared to have been a prolonged bender in the Cherokee Territory before pulling himself together and going to Texas. In the mad confusion that was the founding of independent Texas in the spring of 1836, Houston was about the only senior military commander who kept a cool head, faced with Santa Anna’s invading army. He also — and this was no mean feat — kept his cool in the tomcats-in-a-sack political wrangling that proved to be fairly typical of Texas state politics, then and forever afterwards. He pulled together an effective army, and decoyed Santa Anna into East Texas, farther and farther, until his own commanders were on the verge of deciding he was a coward and would not fight at all. But he turned, when he had the terrain in his favor, and became that rarest of heroes… the one who dies of old age in his own bed. By then he had married Margaret Lea, who was half his age at the time, a shy and beautiful southern belle with a spine of steel. She stopped him from drinking, and kept him more or less on the straight and narrow for the rest of his life.

Abraham Lincoln was born in obscurity and might very well have stayed there, save for the unquenchable burning spark that led him once to walk twenty miles to borrow a book that he had not read before. One has the impression of a ferociously hungry intellect, pulling every scrap of knowledge, of history and poetry, politics and the law into a mind never entirely content. It has been speculated recently that he was subject to bouts of deep depression. He was also ambitious, and went into politics early, while still in his early twenties before teaching himself law and being admitted to the bar in 1837. He practiced law in Springfield, Illinois and increasingly involved himself in state political affairs.

The existing pictures of Lincoln give an impression of melancholy, of someone haunted by unbearable sorrow, whereas those of Houston in his prime seem to reflect a scrappy fighter with three aces among the cards in his hand, and a fairly good idea of where he will find a fourth. Another difference between the two: Lincoln was not handsome. In the words of the country expression - he fell from the top of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. From the accounts of his closest early friends, he was the most endearing and entertaining of company, a gifted raconteur and mimic, able to reduce his audience to helpless laughter… and a shrewd lawyer, particularly relentless in cross-examination. He married the lively and cultivated daughter of a notable and politically well connected family from Kentucky, the Todds of Lexington. Mary Todd had also been courted by Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln would debate over the slavery issue in 1858. Possibly that added a frisson to the debates; one cannot tell at this late date, however.

In 1846 he was elected to the US House of Representatives for one relatively lackluster term, before devoting himself almost exclusively to law for most of the subsequent decade. He returned to politics again, as the question of America’s “peculiar institution”, of chattel slavery went from a simmer to a full rolling boil on the stovetop of political consciousness. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 seemed to be nothing more than a crude exercise of the power of pro-slavery expansionists, in permitting the spread of slavery to territories where it had been forbidden in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The public debates, and lectures which followed, energized that portion of the Northern public which was against such expansion, or even the existence of the institution itself and brought Lincoln to more than just local attention. He was put on the Republican ticket in the 1860 presidential contest as a compromise candidate, a moderate who would attract voters in the western states. His election was seen as a low blow by the Southern, slave-holding states, who began walking out almost before the voting was finished.

Texas was among them, even though Sam Houston was governor of the state that he had variously served as general, congressman and president. Although he owned slaves, he was a unionist, and valiantly fought a delaying action against the secessionists. Lincoln even offered to send Federal troops to keep Texas in the Union: Houston declined, and rather than swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, left his office and public life.

They might possibly have met face to face. They had a chance of course, being both in Washington at the same time, from 1846-1848: Lincoln in the House of Representatives, and Houston in the Senate. One of Houston’s biographers speculates that if Houston had only been a little younger, and had been considered more than briefly for the 1860 presidential slate of candidates… the Civil War might have been averted or delayed for another few years.

Or maybe not.

(This essay originally came about because I was trying to channel what Sam Houston would have thought of Lincoln, as part of writing the Civil War segment of “Adelsverein,” or “Barsetshire with cypress trees… and a lot of sidearms”. Posted at The Daily Brief)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Literary Persuasion

So, I always was interested in being a writer, having actually begun to scribble down stories and adventurous narrations from when I was in the seventh grade, or shortly thereafter. Junior High school was just as deadly, and most of my peers were just loathsome enough that taking that particular refuge in imagination was a perfectly sensible response for someone whose nose was buried in a book very nearly twenty-four seven anyway. I liked to read stories, and I liked write them, and to think up stories and tell them to people… especially to my little brother Sander, who was a perfect mark for some of my best. Like the one I told him, when we were at the beach, once when he was about five; there was a factory or a power plant away down the coast, with the towers and chimneys just barely visible. I told him that it was a factory for making soap; that it sucked in all the white foam off the waves that were breaking all along the beach in front of us, and transformed it into soap and detergent.

Then there was the one for my daughter Blondie, when she lost a helium-filled balloon; as it floated away, I told her about the Secret and Mystical Island of Balloons, away off in the middle of the Pacific. It was the natural home for all balloons, where they went as soon as they escaped from children who had let go of their strings. They even, I told her, had rescue squads who ran special missions to retrieve the remains of popped balloons from wastebaskets the world over, and revive them, once they were safe on the Mystical Island of Balloons.

Then there was the time she was frightened by the original Gremlins movie; she insisted there were gremlins under her bed. Heck, I had once heard leprechauns under mine. “How did you know they were leprechauns?” asked my mother, when she found me sleeping in the closet the next morning. I had curled up there for some peace and quiet; the leprechauns were very rackety. “Because they were little enough to be under my bed, and they sounded like Grandpa Jim, “ I told her; always logical. I told Blondie that she was safe from gremlins as long as our cats, Patchie and Bagheera, were sleeping on her bed; it was a little known fact that cats were absolute death on gremlins. One of the hundreds of reasons I love small children, they are so gullible.

The trouble with going straight into writing became clear to me along about the time that I went into college for that amusingly useless degree in English, when a couple of things gradually made themselves clear to my young and wide-eyed self. One of them was that only a very few of the duly and properly anointed works of Great Modern English Literature written after about 1930 did not bore me into a coma. Seriously: the reading list for a course in the Modern Novel was enough to make me want to slash my wrists with a sharpened thesaurus, it was that depressing.

Secondly, I realized that of the writers I did enjoy, both ancient and modern… most of them had done something else! They had done something else, seriously and with varying degrees of success before picking up the old goose quill and writing. (Classic quip about trying to earn a living as a writer: “It’s like hooking. Before you start charging for it, better be sure you’re pretty good.)

Just look at the list: Chaucer— diplomat and courtier. Shakespeare — actor and theatrical manager. Dickens — newspaper and magazine writer. Kipling — reporter. Mark Twain — reporter. HH Monro— ok, so he was a man about town and wrote on the side. Sir Walter Scott — lawyer. Robert Lewis Stevenson — trained as a lawyer, worked as a travel writer. Thackeray — journalist and editor. Even the modern popular writers that I liked most had done something else for a bit. James Jones —- soldier. Raymond Chandler — oil bidness. Dorothy Sayers pottered around in advertising, and so did Peter Mayle of Provence fame. Carl Hiaason — newspaper reporter. Hemmingway — well, he squeezed in some reporting. Joseph Wambaugh — policeman. James Herriot spun a career as a veterinarian into four books plus. Only JRR Tolkien camped serenely in the academic utopia for most of his writing life, but he had served in World War I.

There were some exceptions either way, of course, but those works of literature, most especially the modern writers anointed by the academe seemed…. Well, pretty juiceless. Enervating. Arid. Given over to navel-gazing, and the weaving of elaborate language with nothing much to say. Even those few who did attempt something more in a novel than a dry exercise in special language effects seemed to look at real life, and real people as if they were something faintly exotic, carefully placed in a natural setting in a zoo and seen through a plate glass window. It almost seemed as if doing something else, anything else for a while filled a writer up with people, experiences, scraps of odd conversation and occurrences… filled them up with life and energy, and that was the kind of writer I wanted to be. Besides, going out and doing something else for a while looked like being a lot more fun than hanging around for post-graduate studies.

(Originally posted at The Daily Brief)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Last Chance for Rockaway!

Stuart W. Mirsky sends this reminder about the Rockaway Literary Arts and Film Festival:

The 2008 Rockaway Literary Arts & Film Festival is nearly upon us and I'm inundated with preparations. For anyone interested in joining us on Sunday June 8th (or on the evenings of the 7th and the 8th for the films), here is a link to our official e-flyer (which contains a link to our official press release detailing the event further)

I know a lot of you are located far away from Rockaway, NY but those in town or in the area may want to come by. Last year's event hosted over 30 writers, including some who are self-published. This year, at last count, I noted we have 46 writers in the mix. We'll be offering panel discussions on suspense writing, literature and
characterization, literature and how it is driven by the authors' own lives, writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, writing about health, historical fiction, and promoting books (this one opens the festival at 10:30 AM and its with award winning iUniverse STAR program author Carol Hoenig). We'll also have live music with an appearance by disc jockey Pete Fornatale (also an author), a workshop on copyright law conducted by a Manhattan-based copyright attorney, and poetry readings, dramatic readings and, of course, more.

A local seafood restaurant, Rockaway Seafood, will be serving food all day and dinner and wine between 5 PM and 7 PM as the book side of the festival winds down and the film side kicks in (starts at 7 PM).

Many individual authors have requested tables to come and display and sell their books and we are accommodating them. So if you write and, especially, if you love books (as I do) this is a nice place to spend a Sunday.

Anyone interested can contact me or just show up (though if you want to display and sell books you need to let me know in advance).

Here are directions to the event:

By public transport:

Take the "A" train (to Rockaway Park) or the # 2 or # 5 heading toward Brooklyn, to Flatbush Avenue Junction. In either case, get off at last stop and take the bus from there to Ft. Tilden (just ask at the token booth for the bus stop and ask the bus driver to alert you when he/she arrives at the Ft. Tilden stop).

By car from Manhattan:

Take the Belt Parkway east to Flatbush Avenue, exit heading south, cross the Marine Parkway Bridge (over Jamaica Bay) and exit to the right, following sign that says Breezy Point/Ft. Tilden. Enter the fort after first light. (The fort will be on your left.)

By car from Long Island:

Take the Northern State, LIE or Southern State. Head south via the Cross Island or the Van Wyck to the Belt Parkway (if you're on the Southern State just stay on it as it turns into the Belt). Follow the Belt west to Flatbush Avenue and exit heading south. Cross Marine Parkway Bridge and follow same instructions as above.