Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Murfin’s Seven Books in Seven Days—The Round Up.

Note:  On Suggestion of old Shimer College pal Sammie Moshenberg I undertook the Facebook challenge of Seven Books in Seven Days.  It took me more than seven days, but I got it done.  Since even folks on FB may not have seen the whole roster and because my half-assed literary tastes may be of some limited wider interest or the subject of bemused bewilderment, I am including lightly edited versions of all seven posts here.
I was not exactly sure what the rules are for Seven Books in Seven Daysfavorite books? Most influential? Fiction only? Anyway, I decided yes to all of those questions

Day 1—Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel bit me while I was in high school. I was gobsmacked by the sheer power of the language: 
. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
I decided then and there to be a writer. This is the big, fat Bantam Books paperback edition that put a real strain on the back pocket of my pants.

Day 2:  Ernest Hemmingway is deeply unpopular these days among progressives and especially feminists. Mostly based on the macho image he cultivated later in life, he is filed under chauvinist pig and if you admit to liking him your cultural stock drops like shares in Trump University. But for me, the power of the simple declarative sentence I found in The Sun Also Rises was a much needed antidote to the florid temptations of my first pick, Look Homeward Angel.  Papa would go on to write better books, and books much more nuanced than his reputation, but this is the one that first hooked me, even though when I first read it I was too young and stupid to figure out just what the hell Jake’s problem was.

Day 3:  When I was fresh out of College and living in Chicago I was reading science fiction almost exclusively except radical stuff, mostly labor history and anarchist related. Both of those reading obsessions were rewarded in Ursula K. LeGuin's masterwork of speculative fiction The Dispossessed about an almost utopia on a planet based on the ideas of nonviolent anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman. It was also a frankly feminist vision in stark contrast to the vigorously macho—and often authoritarian—SciFi offered by many of the top writers in the field. The society was built on the writings and ideas of the crone Odo—an Emma Goldman-like personage. LeGuin called it “an ambiguous utopia” because unlike other anarchist writers she did not believe that either human or societal perfection was possible. Not only was the book unusually thought provoking, but LeGuin was a literary stylist of the first order and prized complex characters over moving a plot line to a predictable conclusion.

Day 4:  Not sure of original parameters of this exercise, I decided to limit my list to fiction. So how did Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology—notoriously a book of poetry—get included?  It’s my opinion that if it was newly published today that it could be hyped as a cutting edge novel in verse. The large cast of characters—the dead of all ages, both sexes, all social classes spanning generations each speak from their graves in the Southern Illinois village cemetery. Their lives intersect in interesting and often startling ways and weave a narrative of the life of the town over decades. Masters was anything but sentimental for the backwater village he grew up in. He was clear eyed, sliding to cynical—the true son of the Village Free Thinker who was a scandal to the “good folks.” It you ever harbored delusions of fantasy small town America fostered by Disney and even by adept writers like Booth Tarkington or Thornton Wilder in Our Town, this is just the book to bury those. A great read every time I pick it up.

Day 5:  1919 is actually the second book of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, one of the great achievements of 20th Century American Literature. It stands for the whole master work. Not only are these books historically significant, they are endlessly inventive and hugely influential on future writers like John Steinbeck, Jean Paul Sartre, and E. L. Doctorow. Dos Passos follows the disparate but sometimes intersecting lives of a dozen major and several minor characters of widely varying social class and prospects and both sexes through the first quarter of the 20th Century. Even these fragmented narratives are broken up by three separate intervening devices—the famous Newsreels which capture reporting of historical events contemporaneous to the stories, mini-biographies of major figures like Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford, and The Camera Eye which were stream of consciousness autobiographical riffs on the author’s own development and relationship to his times. These are big, thick, important books, but don’t be discouraged from tackling them. Dos Passos took a radical lurch to the far right evident in his post-World War II work including Midcentury and that has deeply tarnished his reputation and legacy. Whatever anti-Communist hysteria and libertarian delusions he adopted late in life, the power of these social narratives written and published in the early 1930’s can’t be denied.

Day Six:  If you have been following this exercise you probably have noted my predilections and will not be surprised to see something by John Steinbeck here. You may be surprised by the choice. The Moon is Down is one of his least well-known works. It is a slender novel based on his own wartime play which also became a 1943 film starring Cedric Hardwick, Henry Travers, Lee J. Cobb, and Clair Trevor. It tells the tale of a small Norwegian village and the quiet resistance that mystifies and thwarts its German occupiers. The German officer in charge is not the usual war-time caricature of a demonic, sadistic Nazi. He seems largely a-political, a just-doing-his-job professional who even seems to strive to be humane and reasonable. But like the nice young men who serve under him he is the agent of a vast evil and inexorably compelled to ruthlessly serve it. The book deeply moved and impressed me when I stumbled upon it by accident. Not long after that Steinbeck returned from a Defense Department-sponsored trip to Vietnam. On return, he announced, “I am a hawk, not a pigeon” and heartily endorsed the war. It was quite a propaganda coup for the Johnson administration which was being criticized by numerous writers, artists, and intellectuals. I somehow found Steinbeck’s home address and sent him a telegram—some of you may remember those—that simply quoted a line from the book—a “The flies have captured the fly paper.”

Day 7:  If you have been following this series, you can tell that my picks tend toward major and serious American novelists of the 20th Century. I could continue on that vein, but I also have always loved a great funny book. And the funniest laugh-out-loud book I have ever read was The Mouse that Roared, the 1955 Cold War satirical novel by Irish-American writer Leonard Wimberly. T
he story was laid in the mythical micro-state of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick nestled in a forgotten corner between France and Switzerland that by an accident of history was established by English knights and remains English speaking. In fact, it astonishingly mirrors post-war British society with a tiny Parliament dominated by a stuffy Tory Prime minister with a Labor opposition leader in heavy tweeds with a class chip on his shoulder, all ruled benignly by a young Duchess. The agrarian economy depends on production of a coveted wine, but is nearly destroyed when a California winery produces an inexpensive knock off. To save the country from ruin, the Prime Minister decides to declare war on the United States, lose, and wait for scads of money that America gave to its former foes under the Marshal Plan. The State Department promptly loses or ignores the official declaration of war, and it is decided to that the Duchy must actually launch an attack on the superpower. The befuddled Forester is made Field Marshall and dispatched on a rented tub with an army of three Men at Arms and a dozen Yeomen armed with English long bows all decked out in chain mail and tin hats to invade the USA. Tully, the commander, does not grasp that he is supposed to lose the war. When they land in New York City they find the streets deserted as the city undergoes a mass civil defense drill. After wandering around they stumble upon the laboratory of an absent minded professor and his creation—the Q Bomb, a new super powerful doomsday weapon that makes the H-bomb look like a firecracker. They return home with the professor and the bomb as victors and suddenly Grand Fenwick is the most powerful nation on earth.
The book was also made into a popular film with Peter Sellers playing multiple parts including the Prime Minister, Opposition leader, Duchess and Tully Bascom.  I picked the book up again by chance a couple of years ago and it is still both hilarious and has some pointed lessons about the Cold War and international Real Politic.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A Fathers’ Day Remembrance—W.M. Murfin

W.M. Murfin in Cheyenne circa 1955.

It’s Fathers’ Day.  I don’t know about yours, but mine has been dead a while now.  Long enough for the grandchildren he hardly knew to grow up and some of them have grown children of their own.  My only brother, my twin Timothy who took the name Peter, has been gone for 14 years himself.
My father, Willard Maurice Murfin, known to the world as Murf, often visits me in my dreams.  Strangely, I rarely dream about my, mother, who has been gone even longer or my brother, seldom even of my wife and children.  But Dad pops in regularly.
In my dreams he is not bent and ravaged of body as he was when I last saw him, shockingly shrunken and shriveled so that I hardly recognized him.  He is the handsome, black haired man in the cowboy hat of my childhood.  He looks vaguely like some western movies star, tall and lanky in the mold of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, or Randolph Scott.  He has the long, slender fingers of an artist or musician.  His voice is soft but assured, faintly accented with the nasal twang of his native Missouri.  In life, I never heard him raise his voice nor whatever the vexation or temptation lose his temper.  Neither does he do so in his dreams.

A Christmas morning with Day.  I'm on the left, brother Tim on the right.
My brother thought him a distant man and felt cheated by a certain absence of overt affection.  I thought he was simply a man of his times.  He was gone much on business in our youth at a time my mother sometimes drifted in and out of what might be sanity.  My brother thought he abandoned us and never forgave him, going to his own death consumed in bitterness.  I treasured the time he did spend with us, tossing a rubber ball around in the yard on a summer evening or fishing along one of his beloved trout streams.  They were quiet moments, devoid of fatherly advice.  He was just there.  I adored and respected him above all men.
Who knows which memory is true, which distorted by our own perceptions.  Probably both are false—and true.
Beyond that he was W.M. Murfin, a human being with a wider life than the role of father.  He was first a son and a brother.  A great outdoorsman, he loved to fish and hunt and eventually moved to the Mountain West to live the life he dreamed of.  He had a lovely life with Ruby, after the bitter, pinched years of the Depression released them, as a young bank officer in a dusty Montana town near the Crow Reservation.  Then they lost their only natural baby in child birth, an event that so unhinged my mother that she never recovered and wounded him just as deeply though he nursed the pain with manly stoicism.
As a First Lt. in the Army Medical Corps on Leyte in the Phillipines in 1944.
Then came the War.  He was an over-age soldier.  His offer to use his outdoor skills as a scout or ranger was coolly turned down and he was assigned to the Army Medical Corps.  By the time he arrived in North Africa in 1942 with an American Field Hospital assigned to the British Army in Egypt, he was already top sergeant.  After chasing Rommel through the desert with Montgomery, he was sent state-side for Officer Candidate School.  He finished the war as a medical officer in the Pacific.  He participated in landings at Leyte in the Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa.  He won the Bronze Star for rescuing several men under machine gun fire in the Philippines.  When the war ended he was on board a ship designated for the assault on Japan.  He had been sure he would never survive a fourth campaign.
He came back to Montana simultaneously wild and subdued.  The war had both scarred and deepened him.  Like most men of his generation, he seldom spoke of it, but tried to re-establish a life.  But sometimes he would wake up screaming in the night.
In 1949, as much to fill the empty spot in my mother’s heart and in the hope that it would somehow heal her, they adopted twin boys at birth.  It was an arranged adoption, put together by a sympathetic doctor that knew both the shamed mother and the childless couple.

With Ruby Irene Mills Murfin at our baptism in Hardin, Montan, 1949.  Dad is holding me.
We rattled around the west, Montana to Colorado towns as Dad pursued his new career as a Chamber of Commerce professional.  We ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming 1953.  He was secretary of the Cheyenne Chamber and of the Frontier Committee, which produced the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, the “Daddy of ‘Em All” and the nation’s largest and most important rodeo in those days.
Later, he would move over to the Wyoming State Travel Commission.  As Secretary he sat in the cabinet of Governor Millard Simpson.  He even kept the job when a Democrat, Joe Hickey, was inexplicably elected in the same election that brought John Kennedy to the White House.  But when some Republicans started talking about running him for Governor, he had to get out.

A publicity photo from his days as Director of the Interstate 80 Association at the tack corall in Western Ranchman Outfitters in Cheyenne showing off the lattest straw cowboy hats available at what was then the largest Western wear store in the country
He set up his own business and recruited as clients (or created from scratch) the U.S. Highway 20 Association and later the Interstate 80 Association, both promoting tourism along their routes.  He spent most of each winter on the travel show circuit in the Midwest and East.  He would be gone for weeks, even months a time.  Eventually the Chicago Sportsman and Vacation Show at the old International Amphitheater hired him to manage their tackle and fishing halls.  They added another show at Cobo Hall in Detroit.
Dad wanted to keep the family in Cheyenne.  He didn’t want us in the corrupting big cities.  Tim and I were in high school by then.  But mom grew crazier and the strain was too much.  We piled into his second hand Nebraska State Patrol Dodge and headed east.  We got a little house in Skokie, not far from Dad’s office on Lincoln Avenue just inside the city.
He missed the life of an outdoorsman.  One or two fishing trips a year with his brother in law Norman Strom or a junket to a Canadian fishing lodge courtesy of show exhibitor, was hardly enough.  There was a lot of tension at home.  I got out as soon as I graduated high school and never came back.  My brother stayed home and went to community college for a couple of years and stewed in the tensions and frustrations of that house, undoubtedly coloring his memories.
Mom was illemphysema from years of heavy smoking.  Up at the Mayo Clinic they discovered, too late, that she was manic depressive.  For years before her doctors had treated her as a hysteric and prescribed heavy doses of barbiturates to calm her.  They made her a medical addict with a dresser drawer full of syringes.  Getting her off the needle really changed her.  Her last years were calm.  She re-developed that sweetness which must have first attracted Dad in those long gone days of flapper dresses and straw skimmers in which they courted in 1929.
They moved first Des Moines to be close to relatives and then to Kimberling City, Missouri on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks.  Dad could finally go fishing.  Mom’s heart gave out and Dad married her caregiver, Rae Jane Maxwell, who devoted herself to his last years
On a trip through Montana Dad spied a little log home in Alberton on the Clark Fork River near Missoula.  He just stopped and bought the place, a one-time school house.  He spent his last years renewing his worship of the high mountain trout streams, the smell of the lodge pole pine, and the rustle of moose in the willows by the water.  And he slowly faded away.

With Dad one last time in Alberton, Montana about a month before he died. I was shocked by how much he had physically shurnk and how weak he was.

I saw him last about a month before he died.  I don’t want to remember him like that, ravaged by a brain tumor
His pre-war fishing and hunting buddies scattered his ashes on the sunny side of a mountain  overlooking his favorite trout stream after the American Legion sent him off with full honors and his brother Masons gave him a service.
Those of you who have know me and long wondered why I wear these goofy cowboy hatsnow you know.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Flag Day in the Midst of a National Embracement

Note:  We’ve been here before but slightly updated to account for current catastrophes.

In case you hadn’t noticed today is officially Flag Day, a demi-holiday easily overlookedIt is celebrated by displaying the American Flag.  Veterans’ groups often organize solemn flag disposal ceremonies.  

No other country on earth makes quite the fetish of its flag as does the United States.  The word idolatry comes to mind.  At its worst it elevates the symbol—the Flag—over the substance—the democratic values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution.  It is an absolute truism that those who wrap themselves most in the Flag—and these day that is not just a figurative term—are the most disingenuous and dangerous.  Witness any Donald Trump performance.

Donald Trump practically swaddles himself in flags.  It's a tell--the more and bigger flags, the greater the lies and attacks on fundamental Constitutional and American values.
On the other hand—especially those who served in the Armed Forces or who were raised in a veteran’s household—have been taught to respect the Flag and “the nation for which it stands.”  I still hang the Flag on my house on patriotic holidays and always place my hat over my heart when it passes by in a parade.  It’s just the way I was raised.

Part of the national devotion to the Flag comes from an odd combination of cultural coincidence and calculated political strategy.  Our National Anthem, not officially adopted until 1931 but widely used on patriotic occasions for more than a century prior, may be the only national song about a flag.  

In the years after the Civil War the Grand Army of the Republic promoted flag waving as a triumphant poke-in-the-eye to defeated Confederates and as a test of patriotism in a way virtually unknown in the antebellum years.

Not widely displayed except at military posts, on Navy ships, and on some Federal buildings prior to the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic heavily promoted its use after the war in a spirit of triumphalism of the Union over the vanquished South.  For that reason display of the national flag was highly unpopular in the South until World War I.

The Pledge of Allegiance was penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, for use during celebration the 400th anniversary of the supposed discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.  Quickly adopted by schools as part of the daily ritual of beginning classes, the Pledge does not swear allegiance to the government—an inclusive tip-of-the-hat to resentful former Rebels—or even to the Constitution, but to a symbol, the Flag.

Immigrant children were taught to salute the flag in public schools like this one in New York City where they would be punished for speaking their native languages.  Photo by Jacob Riis.
By the turn of the 20th Century the Flag was being used as a symbol of assimilation for the waves of emigrants swamping our shores—and as a test of their loyalty.  The most popular composers of the era—the March King John Philip Sousa and Broadway’s George M. Cohan made literal flag waving as popular as moon-June-spoon ballads.

During World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration used flag imagery as part of their very sophisticated domestic propaganda operation designed to rouse support of the war effort and raise Liberty Loans.  After the war, the Flag was used to rally support for suppression of the labor movement, radicalism, Socialism, and Communism said to represent sinister alien ideologies.
Although the America First movement during the 1930's attracted some genuine anti-war sentiement, much of its leadership, including Charles Lindbergh, were pro-fascist.  Like other right-wing movements before and since they used the flag as "proof" of their patriotism.
Wilson proclaimed the first official Flag Day in 1916.  In 1949, with the country in the grips of yet another Red Scare, Congress made it an official Federal Holiday, although withholding the paid days off for Federal employees standard for other holidays.

June 14 is Flag Day because on this date in 1777 the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act which officially described a new national banner

Resolved: That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.
The new official flag—not, by the way, likely first sewn by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross—was based on the unofficial Grand Union flag used by General George Washington during the Siege of Boston.  That flag had the same thirteen alternating red and white stripes but had the British Union flag in its canton.  Of course, that was before Independence was declared in July of 1776.  It wouldn’t do to keep the reference to the British flag.  

We will put it succinctly.  No, Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag.

The Act was
vague—it did not describe the arrangement of the stars in the field, how the stars should be shaped, or even how large the field should be.  Local flag makers working from the sketchy description produced many variations with five, six, and even twelve pointed stars; with stars of different sizes; and many variations of arrangement.  Also the shade of blue used for the field depended largely on what blue cloth the maker might have at hand

The familiar
thirteen stars in a circle was not only not standard, some historians doubt if it was used at all during the Revolutionary War.  Others believe that it might have been the flag used at the British surrender at Yorktown.

The United States Postal Service is officially celebrating the Bicentennial of the 1818 Flag Act. 
After Vermont and Kentucky were added to the Union two additional stars and two stripes were added.  It was this flag that was the Star Spangled Banner observed still flying over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor after an all-night British naval bombardment in 1815.  It became apparent that with more new states, adding stripes would quickly become clumsy. In 1818, after five more states were added, Congress fixed the number of stripes at thirteen with an added star for each new state making this the 200th Anniversary of the flag codified to its current specifications.

But it still did not specifically designate an arrangement for the stars.  During the Civil War flags with all manner of arrangements were used.  It was not until the creation of the 48 star flag in 1912 that a specific arrangement was established.  The current 50 star flag has been in use since July 4, 1960 after the admission of Hawaii to the Union.  This year will mark the 58th anniversary of that flag, which has been in service longer than any previous national banner.

Today the flag is waved by forces on both sides of the great social and political divide even as the nation for which it stands seems to teeter perilously on the verge of a second civil war.  Both sides claim to love their country but have seemingly irreconcilable notions about what America is, what it means, and what it should become.

I’ve got my flag today and I stand for the belief that it stands for “Liberty and Justice for All  What does your flag mean?