In recent years of one my small pleasures has become what for lack of a better expression I’ll call lesser holidays, annual observations unknown to the vast majority of the general public but commemorated and meaningful to certain populations. Such holidays, for instance, may be observed in other nations but not the United States; or, observations once widely celebrated here but eventually forgotten due to cultural and demographic change. How and why they got to be forgotten can be interesting in its own right. Evacuation Day is one example. And if you don’t know what that is, I rest my case. Some holidays have been forgotten here but are still very much observed in other parts of the world, and if so it is a connection to others elsewhere. This is all a long-winded way of saying that today is St. Andrew Day. Above we see Canadians on Rue Notre Dame celebrating on some November 30th in the early decades over the nineteenth century.
I was texting and emailing a few people yesterday about the life and career of Charles M. Schulz, whose 100th birthday was yesterday. “Peanuts” is one of those things that for many Americans, certainly of my generation, has just always been there. The person with whom I have always paired Charles Schulz is Kurt Vonnegut, who was also born one hundred years ago this month, on November 11. Like Vonnegut, Schulz was a Midwesterner of German descent who served in World War II and after the conflict got on with his career. War was never far away from either’s work. Think of Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel. One friend with whom I was corresponding yesterday had sent me a “Peanuts” cartoon a few weeks back on Veterans Day in which Schulz had worked in a reference to Willie and Joe. The war was always there.
I was on the reference desk at work last week when a student came up looking up for something. I have helped this young fellow a few times over the semester and every time he comes in we chat for a few minutes. We had somehow gotten on the topic of graphic novels and comic strips. I asked him if he had ever heard of Mad magazine, which he had not. I wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper and told him he might want to look into it. Hopefully he will. Two years ago I wrote about the retirement of Al Jaffee, who at 101 is still with us. In that piece I linked to a Washington Post article in which the author noted Schulz’s appreciation for Jaffee. Each cartoonist’s sensibility was different, but they each understood what the other was doing. Mad spoofed on “Peanuts” all the time, which is the ultimate compliment. Schulz managed to work Alfred E. Neuman into his strip on July 5, 1973. As I said in that Jaffee post in July 2000, in recent years I have come to see pop culture more warily. Consumed too much it has a numbing effect on individuals and society. Done well it can touch millions of people in real and meaningful ways, which in turn creates a shared experience.
I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend has been restful. I did not leave the house once yesterday. I spend so much time running that it was good to stay in. About two months ago in the waning days of summer I told myself I would watch Ken Burns’s 2019 “Country Music” over Thanksgiving weekend. I started Wednesday night and have now watched five of the eight two-hour segments. I mentioned in a post not long ago that late stage Burns has been his strongest period. His films have taken on a purpose and gravity that was sometimes lacking in his earlier work, especially some the projects from the mid-1990s and early-2000s. I believe it is his most-watched work, but parts of “Baseball” for instance are just so treacly and overly sentimental. There has been none of that in the recent projects that he and his colleagues have done.
“Country Music” does a great job of putting the genre into historical context. The music’s evolution is much more complicated than listeners tend to realize. Part of that, I suppose, is because those in the industry–and make no mistake, country music is, was, and always has been an industry–want you to think of this or that artist in the carefully created manner they have curated. The sooner we get past our conceits about “authenticity” the better.
I always read the media commentary when such films come out and am always taken aback at the lack of generosity from so many observers. Many cannot grasp the amount of work that goes into creating a film like this. They simply watch and take what they’re seeing for granted. Just digging up the thousands of still and moving images, let alone sifting through it all and creating a narrative around it all, is a task for which we should be appreciative. One can argue with this or that editorial decision, and I myself would have emphasized this or that artist a bit less or more, but one should respect anyone who puts themselves out there in any medium. If one is looking for a good place to begin exploring the genre, “Country Music” is a great place to begin.
(image/University of Missouri at Kansas City library)
(image/John Schutler after George Henry Durrie, 1867; National Gallery of Art)
I write a little content for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum and Library and a few weeks back they posted my article about Richard Varick’s Society of the Cincinnati punch bowl. I’m trying to carve out a niche for myself during the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War, which in some ways has already begun. It was a great privilege to be one of the American Revolution Institute 2022 Society of the Cincinnati research fellows. I will write more about my research in the coming weeks and months.
I was on the reference desk this afternoon when a young woman, certainly not even yet twenty, walked up and asked about books to help one become a better writer. I asked a few questions to figure out what she was trying to do. As it turned out, she was seeking advice not so much for assignments but on how to become a writer herself. Once I learned that I asked her a question one should ask of all aspiring writers: what do you read? I would rather not go into the details but her answer included many well-respected novelists and essayists, most of them from the past 30-40 years. She also expressed an interest in Renaissance art, which came up because of the discussion about the writers. I told her to start keeping a journal and that while it was not necessary to fill it with Deep Thoughts, it is crucial to establish a routine. Even one paragraph a day is sufficient. What I ultimately suggested was a book that all aspiring scribes should read at least once, Simple Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun. I remember buying my own copy of the cultural critic’s classic twenty-five years ago. Writing simply and directly is about the most difficult thing one can do. I don’t claim to be on Barzun’s level by any stretch, but his lessons I have always taken to heart. Thankfully the young woman indeed checked it out. Hopefully she will have the same experience that I did all those years ago.
(image/portrait of Jacques Barzun by Eric Robert Morse)
I received a missive yesterday from someone asking if I had today off, which at first surprised me; as a general rule November 11 is no longer a bank holiday in most locales, at least here in the States. It has been a long time now, but as I remember it when I worked at the public library twenty-five years ago we were closed for the observation. Many schools were off as well. I don’t believe that is still the case. Nineteen thirty-four was the first year that Armistice Day—today called Veterans Day—was marked as a legal holiday in the United States. Armistice Day 1934 was observed on November 12th, because the 11th fell on a Sunday. Seven thousand New Yorkers, including the Gold Star mothers we see above, turned out in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to mark the sixteenth anniversary of the end of the Great War. Almost 1000 men from the Bronx were killed in France. They had the traditional invocation and two-minute silence along with featured speakers and the like. Curiously, there was even a battle reenactment. It was just one of several events spread across the boroughs. Wherever you are, pause and reflect on those not-so-long-ago events still very much shaping our circumstances today.
(image/Gold Star mothers in Pelham Bay Park, Armistice Day observation 1934/NYPL Digital)
It has been a long day with another, longer one coming tomorrow but I would be remiss if I did not mention that today is the 80th anniversary of the American invasion of North Africa. One of the Second World War’s great ironies is that American troops’ first major engagement in the Atlantic Theater came largely against . . . the Vichy French. It was all over in seventy-two hours but don’t let the quick timeline fool you. It all could have gone so differently. The truth is we were fortunate things went the way they did. Marshall, Eisenhower and all the others had a steep learning curve.
(image/American troops land near Algiers, 8 November 1942/FDR Library)
I was having lunch with some folks last weekend when we got on the topic of the extended playoff system. I have found the twelve-team formula more interesting and exciting than I thought I would. Still, I understood others’ concerns that in a short series—3, 5, or even 7 games—baseball becomes a crapshoot. Unlike in basketball where the best teams wins almost all the time, baseball comes down to who is hot at the time. We have already seen more than one team with 100+ regular season wins get bounced out of the post-season. I’ve been enjoying the games, but we can’t really say that we’re watching the best teams at this point of the season. That said, it’s a tough game and you are only as good as you are playing in the moment. That’s why they play the games. Ninety-five years ago today the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees had clinched their World Series and its biggest stars were on a barnstorming tour of the Midwest. I love this image on so many levels.
I emailed someone today to acknowledge and pay my respects to the great Loretta Lynn. I would have to say hands down that she was favorite female country singer. One of the things I always found most intriguing about Lynn was how little she spoke publicly while seeming to emanate so much wisdom and intelligence. The cliche of country music is that its essence boils down to three chords and truth. With no one was this truer than Lynn; sexuality, motherhood, marital strife, spirituality, and just the everyday struggles of life were all grist for her mill. As a cultural figure she also seemed to cut across generations and fan bases in a way that, unlike with certain other country artists of her time who latched on to whatever genre was happening at the moment, seemed uncontrived. I have no way to verify this, but I read this morning that more Loretta Lynn songs were banned from the radio in the twentieth century than those of all male Country Western artists combined. It seems plausible. Outlaw artists singing about dance floors and booze is one thing, but a woman discussing the independence accorded her via The Pill at the height of the Sexual Revolution was too much for many.
Like so many, for Loretta Lynn it began with gospel and the church.