Monday, September 21, 2020

International Day of Peace/Autumnal Equinox—Murfin Calendar Coincidence Verse

This is another one of the calendar poems inspired by random, or not so random, coincidences of dates, usually discovered as I am in a mad scramble for a blog entry topic.  It first appeared in 2013 but the calendar serendipity is annual.

Tomorrow will be the first day of Autumn but here in McHenry County sky will be an opal haze from the drifting smoke of Western wildfires.  Many of us are still hunkered down in our homes and may be cheated of glory march of the season.  We are bombarded with terrible news.  


Today is the
International Day of Peace, so proclaimed by the United Nations every year since 1982.  Since 2001 the date has been fixed to September 21 instead of the original third Tuesday of the month, which was also when the UN General Assembly begins its annual session.

This year low grade wars bubble underneath American consciences in all of the old battle grounds of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  The Saudis bomb and starve Yemen.  The Israelis bomb Gaza whenever they get the itch and raze Palestinian homes and villages at will.  The Turks shoot the Kurds and the Russians still are at undeclared war with Ukraine.  China crushes democracy in Hong Kong.  And thanks to Trump’s whim to end Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and Kim Jung Il’s erratic sabre rattling  the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has re-set the Doomsday Clock to just 100 minutes to midnight.

An American made aircraft drops American made bombs on Yemeni civilians.

Among its grander visions which must have seemed distant even to the founders of the Day of Peace, was at a call for an annual one day cease fire of on-going hostilities.  I can recall no armies ever standing down, but perhaps I missed something.

The rapid deterioration of the environment—melting ice caps, rising seas, hurricanes, heat waves, fires, droughts, and famine—also displaces millions creating international migration crisis, destabilizing governments, and creating conflict over scarce and vanishing resources—the perfect recipe for war and more war. 

And here at home we seem teetering on the edge of Civil War.

No wonder this old piece is still relevant.

The well intentioned gather at a Peace Pole.

International Day of Peace/Autumnal Equinox Eve

September 21, 2013


The immanent equinox advertises itself

            this morning with crack crisp air,

            elderly maples beginning to rust at the crown,

            a touch of gold on borer doomed ashes,

            mums and marigolds,

            hoodies up on dog walkers in shorts,

            all under a prefect azure sky—

                        you know the one from the Sunday song

reminding “skies everywhere as blue as mine.”


The globe teeters on the edge of equanimity,

            ready to balance for an instant between night and day,

            seasons, yesterday and tomorrow,

            a perilous, promising, moment.


The poor creatures swarming over its surface,

            fancying ourselves somehow its masters,

            alas, bereft of any balance….


From the Wishful Thinking File,

            institutional division—

Festooned with doves and olive branches

            brave words on blue banners,

            a speech here, a lovely little vigil there,

            an earnest strumming of guitars,

            litanies sung, mantras chanted,

            kind hearts and gentle people…


The creatures go about our brutal business,

            blithely ignoring it all—

                        proclamation and equinox alike.


—Patrick Murfin


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Maxwell Perkins—Editor of a Galaxy of Literary Stars

Super editor Maxwell Perkins.

In American letters there have been figures who nurtured the writers who became the voices of their generations.  There was the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson himself and his circle of acolytes and admirers.  William Dean Howells presided at The Atlantic and hobnobbed with Mark Twain and fostered the realist novelists who lifted the genre from genteel diversions for ladies and epic adventure yarns to a mirror of American life.  Ezra Pound in London and Paris and Harriet Monroe in Chicago nurtured a brood of modern poets.  These folks were writers themselves who mentored and encouraged other writers, most often through periodicals that they edited or controlled.

But the man who revolutionized the American novel and made it the preeminent literary force of the first half of the 20th Century was not himself a writer.  He held a previously obscure positionmanuscript editor for a publishing house—and transformed it into a discoverer of new talent and an active partner with authors in shaping their books for the public eye.  In the process he became the most famous editor of all time—Maxwell Perkins.

Perkins was born into the perfectly respectable WASP upper middle class on September 20, 1884, in New York City but was raised in the leafy bedroom suburb of Plainfield, New Jersey, a place of large homes and expansive lawns.  His parents could afford to send him to a prestigious prep school, St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire and on to Harvard where he studied economics in preparation for an expected career in banking or a brokerage house.

But at Harvard Perkins fell under the sway of Charles Townsend Copeland, a famous teacher of literature who ignited a passion for reading.

Upon graduation Perkins worked briefly as a reporter on the New York Times perhaps dreaming that it might be a stepping stone for a career as a writer.  But it was not a good fit.  In 1910 at age 26 he joined the distinguished—and stuffy—publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons as an advertising manager.  Scribner’s was the home of genteel giants of American fiction—Edith Warton, Henry James, and John Galsworthy who chronicled the lives of the American elite.

It took Perkins four years to reach his goal—moving to the editorial department where he became a manuscript reader and junior editor.  It was here that his talents shone, particularly what came to be described as his exquisite taste and his eagerness to discover new talent that would break the bonds of convention.  That did not always make him popular with his superiors, but he shepherded enough good work to profitable publication that he could keep his job.

                    F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Perkins’s breakthrough came in 1919 when a manuscript landed on his desk that had been rejected with scathing comments by all of the company’s other readers.  The Romantic Egotist by a very young writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald was indeed rough.  But Perkins discerned talent.  For nearly two years he worked closely with the writer, guiding him through two complete revisions while continually advocating for the book with his bosses.

His approach would set a pattern.  He became not just a proof reader and style critic, but a friend and mentor to the young author, encouraging him, listening to his self-doubts, advising him on his tempestuous romance with a wealthy belle named Zelda, lending him money, and when necessary sobering him up.  Much later Roger Burlingame, a writer who came under his tutelage described Perkins’s unique approach, “He never tells you what to do.  Instead, he suggests to you, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself.”

Despite all of his work, it looked like Scribner’s would finally reject the book.  At a last, desperate conference, Perkins appealed to the company’s sense of self-preservation, warning that if a talented writer like Fitzgerald was lost to them, he would find a publisher elsewhere, have a great success, and other promising young writers would follow him, “Then we might as well go out of business.”

Scribner’s held its own and published the re-titled This Side of Paradise was published in 1920 with the boast that the author was the youngest ever issued by the house. It became a best seller, a popular sensation, and the company’s biggest seller of the year.

Perkins continued to work with his wunderkind, bringing to publication the even bigger success of the Great Gatsby and then holding his hand through years of writer’s block, self-doubt, and heavy drinking, extracting from the wreckage what he could.  They remained personally and professionally close right up to the writer’s death.

                Ernest Hemingway.

Fitzgerald helped Perkins find his next discovery, when he wrote from Paris in 1924 recommending his friend and drinking companion Ernest Hemingway. The short novel the expatriate writer sent to New York with its terse language and shocking themes, required less editorial tinkering than Fitzgerald’s but did take a lot of cajoling to get his bosses, who were shocked by the use of curse words and sexual tension, to get the company to release A Sun Also Rises. 

Hemingway also became a close friend to his editor—and often had him attend to various business aspects of his sometimes messy life in addition to work on his manuscripts, even seeking his help in securing his house in Key West.  It was said that the first person Hemingway visited each time he was in New York was Maxwell Perkins.  After Perkins died his old friend dedicated The Old Man and the Sea to him—just one of 68 books dedicated to him by grateful authors. 

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Perkins together remade the image of Scribner’s elevating it to undisputed first position among major American publishing houses.  And they were just getting started.

In 1927 Perkins came upon the greatest challenge of his career—the wildly talented and prolific Thomas Wolfe who presented him with thousands of typewritten manuscript pages.  Wolfe was everything Hemmingway was not—lush in his language, devoted to detailed and evocative description of scene and place, sprawling, undisciplined, and deeply emotionally attached to every sentence he wrote.

                        Thomas Wolfe.        

Together, with Wolfe fighting him every inch of the way, the two extracted a long memoir novel, Look Homeward Angel from the original submission.  The book was published in 1929 to huge popular and critical acclaim.  And there was more than enough material left over to seed a second novel.  As Perkins struggled to keep a limit on the new book, Wolfe kept sending him more and more new pages.  Eventually the editor prevailed and Of Time and the River was published in 1935.

By that time Perkins was a publishing legend and probably the only book editor who was a public figure in his own right.  The epic struggles of getting Wolfe’s latest book to publication had become the stuff of New York literary circle gossip and critics were beginning to give Perkins as much credit for the book as the author.  It was a bitter pill for any writer, particularly one as insecure as Wolfe.  He broke with Perkins and Scribner’s to prove that he could do without them.  Wolfe’s next two novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again were published posthumously.  They were fine work, but Perkins’s disciplined hand was obviously missing.

Despite the rupture of their professional relationship, Perkins and Wolfe remained personally close.  Wolfe, descending deeper into alcoholism, still considered his old editor his best friend. 

Taken together those three literary giants have come to define Perkins in the public mind.  And they would be a sufficient career achievement for anyone.  But the editor discovered, nurtured, and refined the works of many others.  In fact the list is staggering.

Take Ring Lardner.  He was already a popular sports writer whose baseball yarns had a fallowing.  But previous collections of columns had failed and Lardner did not consider himself a serious or literary writer.  Perkins urged him to rework his stories and arranged them.  Then he came up with an intriguing title that virtually announced confidence, How to Write Short Stories.  The collection was published in 1924 and cemented Lardner’s reputation.

In 1938 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning The Yearling based on a story idea suggested by Perkins.  In the post war years he discovered the South African novelist Alan Paton and Cry the Beloved Country became an international sensation.

            The mature legend at work at Scribner's.            

In the late 40’s with his health failing, Perkins continued to turn up new talent.  He uncovered James Jones, one of the first important novelists of the World War II generation.  Rejecting his first submission, Perkins suggested the idea for From Here to Eternity based on his conversations with the author.  He worked on the early drafts of the manuscript but died before its publication and huge success.

The fruit of his final discovery did not ripen for nearly 20 years.  He signed Marguerite Young to a publishing contract in 1947 on the basis of a 40 page extract.  She did not finish her massive novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling until 1964 when it was published to huge critical acclaim.

Other writers Perkins edited include Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Martha Gellhorn, J. P. Marquand, and Edmund Wilson.

Perkins died on June 17, 1947 in Stamford, Connecticut.  Scribner’s was never the same without him.

In 1978 Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg became a best seller and made Perkins, the publishing industry legend, something of a popular hero.  Other appreciations have been published since as well as several volumes of his correspondence including books dedicated to the letters to and from Fitzgerald and Hemingway. 

Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe in Genius.

In 2016 the film Genius focused on the relationship of Perkins and Wolfe with Colin Firth as the editor and Jude Law as the tortured writer.  It also featured Nichole Kidman as Wolfe’s lover Aline Bernstein and Laura Linley as Perkins’ wife.  Although well reviewed, the cerebral film sank in the multiplexes where superheroes and sci-fi epics dominated the screens.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute Built on a Promise of Submission

  The second home for the Tuskegee Normal School, a former plantation.  

When I was cracking open an American history text in Cheyenne about 1965 African-Americans were covered in generous page or so in the 400 page tome.  The contents can be summed up thusly—Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas good for a short paragraph each; Lincoln frees the slaves and everyone is happy; uppity Blacks and carpetbaggers wreck horrible vengeance on the defeated South; Booker T. Washington establishes the Tuskegee Institute and one of his teachers, George Washington Carver invents a thousand things to do with the peanut and saves the economy of Georgia.  The latter two, Credits to Their Race, got by far the most ink and even their pictures in the book.

Washington was the Black man Whites loved, and the one they anointed as the spokesman for the race.  And why not.  In order to grow his school in the hostile soil of the post-reconstruction South, Washington made a series of compromises, not the least of which was refusing to advance arguments for the restoration of black suffrage or challenging White authority in any way.  Instead, he advocated that Blacks educate themselves—particularly in useful pursuits like agriculture and teachingwork hard, elevate their moral behavior, and prove themselves to Whites for years before pressing for expanded rights. 

It was a song even Southern Democrats yearned to hear from Black folks, and it enabled Washington to gather financial support and endowments from some of America’s wealthiest men to grow his school into a major institution in just a few years. 

W. E. B. Dubois, founder of the NACCP, was Washington's harshest critic and rival for Black leadership.  When Washington was criticized for meek submission to Jim Crow, he turned around an mocked the pretensions of the Black intellectual elite for preferring esoteric studies over  practical vocational education that could lead to a slow but steady economic rise.  The white establishment and press was unanimous in proclaiming Washington a model "credit to his race" and wringing their hands over Dubois's confrontational militancy.

Of course his consistent conservatism would eventually draw the scorn of more aggressive Black leaders like W. E. B Du Bois, author of The Soul of Black Folks and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  That criticism would be echoed by new generations of Black activists and the scholars who emerged from the Black Studies departments of American Universities since the 1960’s.

It was on September 19, 1881 that a small Normal School for Colored Teachers opened its doors—or door, it only occupied one run-down shack—to students for the first time in Tuskegee, Alabama. 

The previous year a local Macon County Black political leader, Lewis Adams, agreed to abandon his traditional allegiance to the Republican Party and support two White Democratic candidates for the Alabama legislature.  It was one of the last elections in which Blacks, supported by the continued presence of Federal troops under Reconstruction were able to vote in substantial numbers.  Thanks to the re-capture of state and local governments by Democrats, the era of Jim Crow was about to strip Blacks of almost all of their Civil Rights.

Whatever reason Adams had for “selling out” to the Democrats, he was rewarded with a $2000 appropriation to found a new Normal School.  Samuel Armstrong, President of Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, the successful model for the new school, was asked to recommend a principal with the full expectation that the candidate would be White.  Instead, Armstrong recommended a 25 year old Black graduate of Hampton—Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. Washington as the young Principal of Tuskegee.

Washington had been born a slave in Hales Ford, Virginia April 5, 1856.  Like many plantations children, his father was white, but never identified.  He was just nine years old when the Civil War ended.  After emancipation his mother Jane resettled in West Virginia where she at last could legally marry her long time husband a freedman Washington Ferguson.   The boy took his step-father’s first name for his last.  

As a youth he worked in local coal mines and in a salt furnace saving a small amount of money to travel to Hampton Institute for an education.  He worked his way through that school and then enrolled in Wayland Seminary, a Baptist theological school, in 1876.  He abandoned the pursuit of the ministry and returned to Hampton, where he had been an outstanding student, to teach.

July 4, 1881 is usually sited as the foundation date for the new school.  But classes did not actually begin until September. Washington took the reins of a school with just enough money to pay him and a couple of instructors for one year.  The legislative grant had not covered either land or buildings.  The ramshackle old church that the founders had secured was obviously unsuitable for a lasting institution.

Washington showed the skillful administrative and fundraising abilities that marked his career by securing a loan from the White treasurer of the Hampton Institute to buy a plantation on the outside of town.  He opened the school there in 1882. 

By 1888, just seven short years after moving to the plantation location, the Tuskegee Institute was famous.  It encompassed nearly a dozen buildings on over 540 acres had more than 400 students enrolled.  How did Washington accomplish this astonishing transformation?”

Two ways.  First, he was a relentless fund raiser and not afraid to directly approach the richest and most influential men in the nation for support. He knew just what to say to them to tug at what charitable heartstrings they might have while assuaging any fear that they may be abetting a Black uprising.  Eventually his list of donors grew to include steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and Central Pacific Railway tycoon Collis Huntington.  He enjoyed political support and protection both from Alabama White Democrats and national Republicans like William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, who would famously invited him for dinner at the White House.

Tuskegee was literally built with the labor of its students.

Secondly was the labor of his students.  Students were expected to work and work hard, in exchange for their education.  It both fit in with Washington’s philosophy that work was ennobling and provided him the hands that built his buildings, tended the farm that produced the food that was eaten, engaged in numerous crafts, cooked and served, cleaned and catered to his every whim.

Students were roused from their beds at 5:30 and kept running between classes, chores, study time, and prayer until 9:30 at night.  Except for the Sabbath, which was expected to be devoted to services, Bible reading, and reflection, there was no free time, no recreation.  Washington feared that idle hours would tempt his students into crap games, drinking, chasing women, and general debauchery which would ruin them, and worse, bring disgrace upon the school and the race.

Despite the rigorous demands, ambitious students from across the South got to Tuskegee any way they could get there.  They found dedicated and gifted teachers like Olivia Davidson, the vice-principal who became Washington’s second wife, and Adella Hunt-Logan an English teacher and school librarian who also became a leading Black women’s suffragist.   Programs in agriculture and the “useful manual arts” prepared them for life in the South.

The school became one of the first in the South to educate women as teachers and added a School of Nursing in 1892.  Eventually all courses of study were open to co-eds.

Within a few years graduates were spreading over the South, improving Negro schools and founding new ones.  Agricultural extension activities brought modern farming techniques to Blacks who were able to hold on to their land and avoid being knocked back down to the semi-slavery of share cropping.

By 1890 the White Democratic counter-revolution was complete across the South.  Blacks were once again disenfranchised.  Jim Crow and the reign of terror of the lynch mob crushed Black hopes and expectations.  In less than ten years from its founding, the social climate that had given birth to the school changed.  Former Southern White allies, who had seen the school as a balance against more threatening Black advancement, now were turning on it and regarding it with suspicion.

Washington was keenly alert to the dangers.  He took the opportunity provided by an invitation to give a speech at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta to put forward the much publicized Atlanta Compromise in which he, on behalf of Southern Black leadership pledged explicitly to accept White rule, refrain from agitation on the franchise and other issues in exchange for a White guarantee to support Black education and some degree of fairness before the law. 

Washington's cautious conservatism earned praise, support, and dollars from the White establishment.  Pictured here with R. C. Ogden, William Howard Taft, and Andrew Carnegie, one of Tuskegee's most important benefactors..

The unwritten compromise—Washington preferred the term accommodation—secured the safety and future of the Tuskegee Institutes, although white promises  of fair treatment in the courts proved completely illusionary.  It also generated even more generous donations from Northern industrialists and benefactors which now expanded to include John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, George Eastman, and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson.

Another rich man, Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company became a leading member of the Tuskegee Board and funded a project which would build 500 schools in rural Black communities which would be designed by Tuskegee architects, built by student labor, and staffed by its trained graduates.

Despite these accomplishment, Washington’s “meek submission to White rule” drew the scorn of a new generation of Black leaders, including Du Bois, many of them highly educated and based in the North.

Washington spent more and more of his time on speaking tours and on fund raising, but kept a close grip on the management of the school as principal.  The work load was visibly taking a toll on his health.  On November 14, 1915 Washington died at the school of congestive heart failure.

He left behind a sprawling, modern campus, a wide extension system, and an endowment of over $1.5 million.  He was laid to rest on the campus.

During World War II the school became the training center for the famed Tuskegee Airmen who became the most decorated fighter unit of the the war.

His school endured, even thrived.  It adapted over the years to new demands, adding departments preparing its students in many new areas.  It is now Tuskegee University.  The school famously became the training site for the Tuskegee Airmen, the Black World War II fighter pilots who became legendary over the skies of Europe.

It has also had its troubled moments, most infamously as the home of the Syphilis Study, conducted for the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932–1972 in which 399 poor and mostly illiterate African American sharecroppers became part of a study on the natural development of syphilis without treatment.  While some participants received treatment, a control group did not and the disease was allowed to run its fatal course over many years causing both needless suffering and risking the continued infection of new victims. After the study was revealed President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology on behalf of the nation.

Tuakegee's participation in the infamous Federal Syphilis Study for over 40 years in which hundreds of poor Black men were allowed to go untreated as a control group to compare with those getting medical care was a low point for the school.

But just as Washington would have, the University used the case to raise money to open a new National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, devoted to “engaging the sciences, humanities, law and religious faiths in the exploration of the core moral issues which underlie research and medical treatment of African Americans and other underserved people.”

Today Tuskegee University is one of the flagship schools served by the United Negro College Fund and still one of top historically Black universities in the country.  There are more than 4000 students in 35 bachelor’s degree programs, 12 master’s degree programs, a 5-year accredited professional degree program in architecture, 2 doctoral degree programs, and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program.

The campus, including to original building, Washington’s home The Oaks, the graves of Washington and George Washington Carver and the Carver Museum are a National Historic Site.  Moton Field, home of the Tuskegee Airmen, is a second designated Historic Site.

Graduates of the Institute and University have included such notables as Amelia Boynton Robinson, Civil Rights leader and the first Black woman to run for office in Alabama; Lionel Richie and the rest of The Commodores; author Ralph Ellison; Air Force General “Chappie” James, the first Black to reach four star rank in the armed services; super star radio host Tom Joyner; former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin; Dr. Ptolemy A. Reid, former Prime Minister of Guyana; Betty Shabazz, activist and widow of Malcolm X; and  actor, comedian, and producer Keenan Ivory Wayans.