Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween—The Old and the New of It

Adults have increasingly turned Halloween into another party-till-you-puke opportunity.

Note—Back by popular demand!  It’s the third annual appearance of this holiday classic. 
I am guessing that readers of this blog are probably more familiar with the origins and development of Halloween than most folks.  But for review: 
Halloween traces its origin to the Celtic harvest festival Samhain.  It was one of the four festivals that fell between the Solstices and Equinoxes which celebrated the natural turning of the seasons.  Samhain was particularly important because it was the gate time to the death and starvation season of winter, as well a time to celebrate the recent harvest. 
This association with the death of winter, also extended to the spirit world, which was considered to be closer to the mortal plane than at any other time of the year.  The Celtic priests—the Druids—marked the occasion with the lighting of bon fires and gifts of food and drink for the spirits of the dead.  Some consider it also analogous to a New Year’s Celebration launching a new cycle of the seasons.  It was popularly celebrated by the peasantry long after the Druids passed and well into the Christian era.
Too popular to squelch, as with many pagan observances Catholic Church  co-opted the custom as All Saints Day on November 1.   In rural regions especially Samhain customs continued to be observed on the evening before the Holy Day—which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, or in Scots  Hallowe'en.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought some of their customs with them, but Halloween does not seem to have been widely celebrated.  The Puritans spent a lot of time trying to squelch May Pole dances associated with the spring Celtic festival of Bealtaine, but for all of their obsession with witchcraft, usually associated with those who continued to keep the old pagan traditions, there is no evidence of suppressing   Samhain or Halloween.
In fact there is little mention of Halloween in American at all until the late years of the 19th Century when a few scattered newspapers began reporting ritual begging on Halloween by masked youths accompanied by threats and acts of vandalism.  These were probably introduced by the wave of “country” Irish immigrants that began after the Potato Famine and continue through most of the rest of the century.
Customs for observing the holiday varied regionally.  Parties with games such as bobbing for apples and the telling of ghost stories were fairly common.  The custom of trick or treating seems to have spread slowly.  What progress it was making was largely interrupted by the Depression years when families had little extra money to spend on treats and by the sugar rationing of World War II.
Trick or treating was still far from universal until after World War II when it became a topic of popular radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet.  A Halloween episode in the movie Meet Me in Saint Louis was one of the first portrayals of children’s customs associated with the holiday on the screen. 
In 1947 the popular children’s magazine Jack and Jill published a story on the custom of Halloween begging and described it in detail, spreading the practice widely and with amazing uniformity.  By 1951 the practice was wide spread enough that a Philadelphia woman, Mary Emma Allison and the Reverend Clyde Allison decided to channel the energy to constructive purposes by introducing Trick or Treat for UNICEF to support the work of the United Nation’s international children’s work.
By the mid 1950’s with the strong support of the candy companies and the introduction of cheap masks and pajama style costumes for children, the practice of trick or treating had become ubiquitous and had even taken on a feeling of a long standing practice.
What started with ghost stories and the like, soon spread to all types of horror, fueled by the growing popularity of increasingly violent Hollywood films.  Gore became and more and more common theme and showing horror films for the whole month of October in theaters and on TV was standard by the early 1970’s.
About the same time the first generation of trick or treaters grew up but continued to enjoy the dress-up and parties of Halloween.  It is, year by year, an increasingly popular adult holiday, incorporating many of the features of various masquerade festivals with macabre twist.
Halloween is now the second most widely celebrated holiday in the United States and is an economic powerhouse, generating sales second only to Christmas.  Popular American media have spread the customs of trick or treating and celebrating gore around the world, often supplanting truly ancient celebrations of Halloween in the Celtic countries.
The resurgence of Christian Fundamentalism in the U.S. has led to a counter movement to strip the “Satanic” festival from public schools and the wider community.  Although they get it wrong—there was never any connection between Satanism and Halloween—the fundies, ironically, at least recognized a religious tradition hiding under the commercial hoopla. 
At the same time re-invented “traditional” paganism like Wicca, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements of the last twenty years, has striven to recapture the nearly lost significance of the holiday’s roots in Samhain.
Go thou, and celebrate as thou wouldst.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

What Willie and Joe and Bill Mauldin Taught Me

In 2010 the Postal Service issued this First Class stamp honoring Bill Mauldin. Willie and Joe

When I was a boy I was obsessed with the great event of my parents’ life time—World War II.  It was hard not to be.  Almost every house I ever visited had at least one framed photo of a handsome young man in uniform proudly displayed.  Sometimes more.  Husbands, brothers, fathers.  Most came home.  Some didn’t
The survivors of those photos were still mostly youngish men in the prime of their lives—my father and the fathers of almost all of my friends.  They were serious, hard working men.  They were very busy doing things, sometimes big things.  To a man those I knew best, my father and uncles, could hardly be made to talk about their experiences.  If pressed they would say, “Well, I was in Europe for a while.”  Or, “I was a Seabee.”  Further details were seldom forthcoming.
They belonged to the Legion or the VFW, but seemed neither super-patriotic nor querulously eager for the next war.  They took comfort in being around other man who had been there, but they distrusted the occasional braggart and blowhard at the bar.  Their contempt for that ilk was summed up years later in a Bill Mauldin cartoon in the Chicago Sun Times showing one of the bellicose Legion leaders of the Vietnam  era beginning and ending his World War II service, “folding blankets in Texas.”
For real information on what our dad’s did in the war, we had to turn to our mothers.  Mine was glad to share her meticulously kept scrap books with photos, postcards, newspaper clipping, maps, V-mail letters, and even un-used ration stamps.  And she dug out the well buried footlocker in the basement chocked full interesting stuff.  I claimed a khaki overseas cap, which for a season or two I wore everyday in lieu of my customary cowboy hat, a web belt, canteen, mess kit, ammo pouches, a gas mask bag, and a helmet liner.  I was outfitted well for the endless games of war the neighbor hood boys played in backyards among hedges and window wells.
On Sunday afternoons I was glued to the TV documentaries about the war that were still a staple of the air—the Army’s The Big Picture, Victory at Sea, Silent Service, and most episodes of Walter Cronkite’s The Twentieth Century.  And then there were the old movies that played on the daily movie matinee show which came on just as I got home from school.  I thought I knew what war was about.
But of course I didn’t know squat.  Until I found in my mother’s bookshelves well thumbed editions of  This is Your War, a collection of columns by the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle and a couple of collections of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons for Stars and Stripes.
Both Pyle and Mauldin rose to fame covering the brutal, unglamorous Italian campaign as troops slogged slowly north through the boot against stubborn German resistance, treacherous mountainous terrain, rubble strewn street fighting, supply shortages, and often incompetent leadership.  So much for Winston Churchill’s “soft underbelly of Europe.”  Fighting there dragged on after it was relegated to a side show and allied troops, liberated at last from the Normandy beaches, were racing across France far to the north.
The two both told about the war from the front line perspective of the G.I. dogface—exhausted, bitter, cynical, stripped of all illusions of glory, immune to patriotic exhortations, and suffering as much at the hands of clueless generals and idiot second lieutenants as from the usually unseen Nazis.  Pyle drew the picture with words.  Mauldin just drew the picture.
And remarkably, he did so in the official GI newspaper Stars and Stripes as a sergeant in the Army he chronicled.  Willie and Joe were his creation to represent the lives of the grunts on the ground.  They were unshaven, slovenly, and perpetually exhausted.  They looked in those drawings like old men.  But Mauldin, who was only 22 and looked years younger, pointed out that Willie and Joe were the same age he was.  War did that to them.
The old spit-and-polish brass hated Mauldin and often tried to get him banned from the paper or refused to issue passes to their front line units—where he went anyway, regardless of any stinking passes.  General George Patton called him to his headquarters and threatened to have him arrested for disturbing morale.  Dwight Eisenhower had to personally intercede with orders to leave Mauldin alone.  He thought the comics helped his men “let off steam.”
Mauldin was born on October 29, 1921 in Mountain Park, New Mexico.  His family was no strangers to the military.  His grandfather was a cavalry scout in the campaigns against the Apache.  His father was an artilleryman in World War I.
The family moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Mauldin finished high school and became interested in art.  He enlisted in the Arizona National Guard, but was able to go to Illinois where he attended classes at Ruth VanSickle Ford’s Chicago Academy of Fine Art.
He never completed his studies.  He was called up from the Guard to active duty in 1940.  He was assigned to the 45th Division, the first all-guard unit activated prior to America’s entry into the war and made up units from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma including many Native Americans.
Mauldin was a good soldier despite his almost childish appearance.  He advanced to the rank of sergeant quickly and began contributing cartoons to the Division newspaper.  While still training stateside he created Willie and Joe, based largely on his best friend and himself.  When the unit deployed overseas he was assigned to the Division Press Office.  He did not consider that to be behind the lines duty.
When the Division landed in Sicily in July of 1943 for its first combat operations, Mauldin was right there with the front line infantry.  He stayed there.  He was with them again on September 10 when the Division landed at Agropoli and Paestum, the southernmost beachhead of the Salerno campaign.  Thus began the long, grinding inch-by-inch slog up the length of the Italian Boot.
Mauldin’s cartoons were being reprinted in Stars and Stripes and in February 1944 he was transferred to the Army newspaper, issued a Jeep and given pretty much a carte blanche to cover the front as he thought best.  His reputation among GIs was high and everywhere he went they welcomed him even if officers were mostly uniformly mortified.  Recognition that he often took the same risks as infantrymen won him credibility, especially after he was wounded by mortar fire while visiting a machine gun crew near Monte Cassino.
He returned to the front and his drawings, which were now also being circulated by the Army to civilian papers in the States.  The brass felt that the cartoons would make clear to the public the realities of the war and explain the slow pace of advance in Italy to a public which expected quick victories.
Mauldin was awarded the Legion of Merit, an award usually given to field grade officers in combat operations.  At the end of European operations, Mauldin wanted to have Willie and Joe killed on the last day of combat, a final thumb of the nose to the futility of war.  The horrified Brass quickly nixed that idea.
Back in the states and out of the service, Mauldin found himself something of a celebrity.  He had even made the cover of Time Magazine.  He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.  His first book Up Front, one of the books I purloined from my mother’s selves, was a best seller.  It contained many of the best Willie and Joe cartoons along with no-holds-barred essays that stripped all glory from war.
A defiant liberal, Mauldin found it difficult to fit into an America in the throws of Red Scare paranoia and hardening conservatism.  His attempts to establish a career as an editorial cartoonist was stymied as news papers shied away from “controversial content”  especially when he echoed the views of the American Civil Liberties Union and its opposition to witch hunts, black lists, and attacks on individuals for their political opinions.
He tried to transition Willie and Joe to civilian life and chronically the hard times they had fitting in.  The public wasn’t interested.
Discouraged, Mauldin turned to illustration magazine articles and books.  He even tried his hand at acting, appearing with another youthful looking veteran, Audie Murphy in the Civil War film, The Red Badge of Courage.
Mauldin also struggled with his personal life.  He married three times and fathered eight children.
In 1956 at the height of the cold war Mauldin ran for Congress in a rural Upstate New York District as a peace Democrat.  He campaigned hard and was personally well received by local farmers—until his foreign policy positions failed to match to staunch conservatism of the district.
In 1958 he finally got steady work as staff editorial cartoonist for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and the national syndication that went with it.  Ironically Mauldin’s still struggling career got a boost when he won a second Pulitzer Prize 1n 1959 for a cartoon that was acceptable to the anti-Communist crowd.  It pictured Boris Pasternak, author of Dr Zhivago in a Soviet Gulag asking a fellow inmate, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?”  In fact the cartoon was in line with Mauldin’s consistent defense of the rights of free speech and civil liberties.
Mauldin moved in 1962 to the Chicago Sun-Times , Marshal Field’s liberal challenger to Col. Robert McCormick’s hyper-conservative Chicago Tribune.  It gave him a supportive home for outstanding political cartooning for the rest of his career.  Mauldin’s editorial page panel was one of the big reasons I became a dedicated reader of that paper for years.
Among his famous Sun-Times cartoons is the picture of Lincoln seated in the Lincoln Memorial burring his face in his hands the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy—which inexplicably failed to win a third Pulitzer.    He was a bitter opponent of the Vietnam War and supporter of anti-war protestors.  His cartoons during and after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 featured Mayor Richard J. Dailey as a Keystone Kop, which made Hizonor apoplectic.
Mauldin retired in 1991.  He was missed.  He occasionally contributed a cartoon and did several interviews.  He entertained old friends and admirers.
But his fine, sharp mind was fading.  Suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease Mauldin was badly scalded in bath tub accident and died in great pain in Newport Beach, California on January 11, 2002.  He was buried with so many of his fallen comrades at Arlington National Cemetery.
Willie and Joe endure.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Love it or Loath it—It’s Harvard’s Birthday

Harvard was already 150 years old when this etching was made about the time of the American Revolution.l

Flags at half staff at Fox News and Tea Party retreats today.  On October 28, 1636 the greatest bastion of “cultural elitism” in American history came into being and despite stiff competition, it remains a force with tendrils deep into the highest echelons of government, law, business, and the arts.      

It was on this day that the College at New Towne was created by an act of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  New Towne was just up the Charles River from Boston would soon be named Cambridge, in honor of the English university where many leading citizens had received their education.  A fitting name for the home of the very first institution of higher learning in North America.

This was only 16 years after Separatist dissenters, known to us as the Pilgrims, established a tiny colony at Plymouth and eight years since the dour Puritans had established themselves.  Despite a steadily growing population due to new arrivals from England and extraordinary fertility, settlements still clung close to the coast and not many miles inland was still a “howling wilderness” populated by Native tribes and confederacies.  The urgent mission of the school was to train new Puritan divines to fill the pulpits of the town churches that the members of the General Court were sure would be built.  The school began with one Master, Nathaniel Eaton, and nine students.

After just two years of existence and without graduating a single student the struggling College received a startling and totally unexpected windfall.  John Harvard was a young Puritan minister who had arrived in the New World in 1637 and was settled a minister in Charlestown.  He was the son of a butcher and tavern keeper who “rose in the world.” In 1625, his father, a stepsister, and two brothers died of the plague. Only his mother and one brother survived.  His mother remarried and was widowed twice more by men “of substance.”  She was able to send her son to the Puritan hot bed of Emmanuel College, Cambridge from which he graduated in 1632.  His mother died in 1635 and his brother in 1737 leaving John the unexpected heir of a small fortune.  Unfortunately the minister contracted the dreaded consumption (tuberculosis) and was dead within a year.  Among Harvard’s closest friends was Eaton the Master of the New School.  In his will Harvard donated his impressive library of more than 400 volumes to the school in addition to £779 17s 2d, half of the cash value of his estate.  Eaton was entrusted with using it for the benefit of the school.

Eaton put the money to work right away.  He saw to the erection of a fine frame two story building with as stone foundation and a cellar.   The building could supposedly house the Master and up to 30 students with a parlor for instruction. The property included its own apple orchard, barn, and garden plot.  Eaton was glad to rename the school Harvard College on March 13, 1639.

Eaton was not to enjoy his stewardship of the college for long.  He and his family ran afoul of the notoriously high handed Governor John Winthrop.  Eaton was fired and brought up on charges that he had “whipped too harshly” two of his students and that his wife had served others hasty pudding contaminated with goat feces—an event which inspired the name for a much later college humor society.  After being convicted, Eaton fled to Virginia and was later accused by the Governor of absconding with £100 of the Harvard bequest—an allegation that dogged the man until his dying day in an English debtor’s prison.

Eaton was succeeded in 1640 by Henry Dunster, the first man to hold the title President.  The first students graduated in 1642. During his tenure, in 1650 Harvard College received its official Charter. Dunster remained in his post until 1654 when he too ran afoul of Puritan authorities in a dispute over infant baptism.

Harvard was never officially affiliated with the church.  It didn’t need to be.  The authorities of Massachusetts Bay assumed that all institutions would be subject to “instruction” by a virtual theocracy.  A 1643 pamphlet summarized the mission of the college, “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churche.”

Even in the early years there periodic eruptions campus misbehavior and scandal—even Puritan boys away from home for the first time were apt to go a bit wild, drinking, gambling, “whoring,” insulting good townsfolk, and occasionally openly rebelling against bad food, inept instruction, and capricious discipline.  These instances were usually met with canings, expulsions, prosecution by local authorities, and—once in a while—the dismissal of faculty members for being too lax or too harsh.

Despite this, the College was succeeding in supplying new ministers—plenty of them, even more than there were pulpits to fill.   Its classic education, drawn from the colleges of Cambridge in the mother country, however, was suitable preparation for other professions as well.  Soon the college was producing lawyers in as great abundance as divines, followed by medical doctors.  Even “failed” students who did not succeed in a profession could fall back upon the calling of the desperate gentleman—school mastering.  Others found their way into business, particularly maritime trade, where a good education in figures stood them well.

In 1664 the College building burned to the ground taking with it all but one of John Harvard’s library books.  It was quickly replaced with grander accommodations.

Concerned with both rowdisim on campus and creeping infidelity, Increase Mather, the powerful pastor of Boston’s North Church, was named Acting President in 1685, named Rector following year, and made permanent President in 1692.  Although not in residence on campus, and seldom even a visitor, Mather instituted sweeping changes in curriculum and discipline.  He purged classic, but heathen Latin writers from the curriculum, instituted study of Greek and Hebrew and emphasized Biblical text and commentaries by Christian writers.  To reign in the unruly students, he enforced rules that they must live and dine on campus.  Mather held sway at Harvard until 1701.

Despite the turmoil and the rigidity of Puritanism, Harvard had done its job well.  At the dawn of 18th Century New England had the highest concentration of college graduates in the world, the most literate general population, and quite likely the highest standard of living.  Although the society had a rigid social structure, it was not a hierarchy of unbreakable class or caste distinction.  The sons of farmers and tradesman, could, and often did, acquire an advanced education and rise to prominence.  A profusion of ministers, lawyers, teachers and merchants trained at Harvard provided a core of educated civic leadership that was unmatched.

However much Mather and his Puritan peers might have wished it, however, an education inevitably caused inconvenient questioning of authority and received wisdom.  Mather’s successor as President was John Leverett, the first non-minister to serve.  He quietly began distancing the college from control by the Boston clergy.  In the next century the ideas of the Enlightenment would begin to percolate through the school, as well as a growing restiveness with Calvinist rigidity.

Graduates of Harvard like Samuel and John Adams were to become leaders of the drive for Independence.  When the notions of Harvard cross fertilized with Virginian aristocrats who had been schooled by tutors and at institutions like the College of William and Mary where the radical notions of the Scottish Enlightenment held sway, there was revolution in political thought as well as simply politics.

The earliest known official reference to Harvard as a university occurs in the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.  Undergraduates still attend Harvard College, with the University now offering graduate education in many fields.

Through the last half of the 1700, Harvard and the ministers it was still producing became more and more unorthodox.  Rival Yale, founded the same year as Mather left the helm of Harvard, was soon seen as an orthodox bastion against Harvard liberalism.  In 1805 the Harvard Board of Overseers filled the Hollis Chair of Religion with liberal Henry Ware, Sr. a move that would eventually lead to the rupture of the New England Standing Order and would leave the Unitarians firmly in control of the College, and over most of the churches of Eastern Massachusetts.  The orthodox Congregationalists responded by founding Andover Theological Seminary in 1808 to train reliable clergy.

Over the next fifty years a Unitarian establishment came to dominate the College.  Early on the Unitarians and High Federalists instituted a series of societies and institutions on campus meant to shore up their authority against possible challenges by orthodox Congregationalists.  Ironically, the religious liberals instituted an illiberal regime that was constantly being challenged.  And the challenge was not only from the orthodox.  By the 1840 Unitarians of Ware’s sort were seen as enforces of their own orthodoxy and were the subject of rebellion by a new wave of philosophy—Transcendentalism exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson who shocked sensibilities with his Divinity School Address.  Many Harvard graduates became leading members of the New England Renaissance, a cultural phenomenon that gave the nation its first full throated literary voice.

By the Civil War, Harvard had become the firm foundation of the rule of Boston and Massachusetts by an insular elite—the Boston Brahmins.  The management by a succession of stodgy Unitarian Presidents nearly killed the college by the Civil War however.  Wealthy Bostonians were becoming reluctant to entrust their young men to religious indoctrination and not “practical training” for the business world.

To the rescue came yet another Unitarian, Charles William Eliot who became president in 1869.  He was a trained scientist and had attended the advanced polytechnic universities of Europe.  He was also a Transcendentalist who determined to secularize the college in order to free the minds of the students. 

Under his long leadership he instituted the New Education meant to enable students to make intelligent choices, but should not attempt to provide specialized vocational or technical training.  He radically reformed and expanded the curriculum, supplementing the traditional Classics education with a broader sampling of the humanities including modern language and literature as well as a firm grounding in science and mathematics.  He instituted an elective system that let students participate in building their own education.  Her reformed graduate schools and added new ones, emphasizing original research as well as instruction. 

An administrative reformer as well, he reorganized the faculty into schools and departments and replaced recitations with lectures and seminars. He encouraged both private and public secondary schools to change their curriculums to prepare for college admission, thus almost single handily inventing the modern High School.  He instituted admission to the school by standardized testing.

A tireless fundraiser, he solicited the generous support of the very wealth to create a huge endowment and build the many new structures his expanding university required.  In doing so he tied Harvard closely to the emerging plutocracy of Gilded Age America.  Although a noted progressive and liberal—he insisted on education Blacks and admitting Jews, for instance, he displayed class loyalty by fierce opposition to unionism and the labor movement and encouraging Harvard students to actively become strike breakers. By the time Eliot’s tenure ended in 1909 Harvard had been transformed into a world class research university.

Jews and Catholics, previously admitted on a strict quota basis, began being admitted in large numbers beginning in the 1960’s.  Black and other minority students became actively recruited and supported as the 20th Century closed.  Harvard absorbed Radcliffe College, founded in 1879 as the “Harvard Annex for Women” in 1977 making it fully co-educational.  Women now are a majority in the College and are enrolled in large numbers in all graduate schools.  .

Today Harvard remains the most prestigious American University with 2,000 faculty to teach and advise approximately 6,700 undergraduate and 13,600 graduate and professional students in 12 degree-granting Schools in and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.  The Harvard University Library is the largest academic library in the United States, and the second largest library in the country. 

Harvard is—by a wide margin—also the wealthiest school in the world.  In June 2009 the University had an endowment of $25.7 billion despite having lost maybe as much of half of its value in the economic crisis.  The losses have resulted in some major finger pointing—largely at former President Lawrence Summers who departed controversy wracked tenure to become President Barak Obama’s top economic advisor.  The losses caused some belt tightening, the delay of a capital project or two and a review of a previously announce policy that would make undergraduate admission free to needy students.  But the recent up-tick in the stock market has already recovered much of the loss and no one is going to have to hold a bake sale for Harvard any time soon.

Most universities like to list a handful of distinguished alumni in their brochures.  It would take a phone book for Harvard including 8 Presidents of the United States including both George W. Bush and Barak Obama and 18 Supreme Court Justices including five of the nine sitting justices.

The school, even with a far more diversified student body than in the past, continues to pump its graduates into all of the elite institutions in the nation.  Since most of them can read, write, and formulate independent informed opinion, this continues to depress the Right.