Tuesday 31 May 2016

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois in 1899 to a physician father and musician mother.  Although he disliked the cello lessons that his mother made him take, he admitted later that they helped him with his writing, particularly the book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway ended up writing dozens of articles and several books, all on the themes of war, love, loss and wilderness.

Hemingway's interest in writing started in his junior year of high school when he took a journalism course where the classroom was patterned after a newspaper office.  The better writers in the class, like Hemingway, submitted their pieces to the school newspaper, The Trapeze, including an article about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Hemingway wrote for the Kansas City Star where he adopted the paper's style:  "Use short sentences.  Use short first paragraphs.  Use vigorous English.  Be positive, not negative."

At 18, Hemingway served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War. Wounded by shrapnel, he almost lost his leg and came face to face with his own mortality.

On returning to North America, he was hired by the Toronto Star Weekly where he wrote 88 stories in the space of only 18 months, including "Tuna Fishing in Spain" and "Trout Fishing All Across Europe".  He married Hadley Richardson, a reporter for Vogue magazine.  The couple moved to Paris where Hemingway hobnobbed with writers Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound.  He and Joyce would go on alcoholic sprees together at the Ritz Hotel.  It was during this time that Hadley lost a suitcase full of his manuscripts at the Gare de Lyon while on her way to Switzerland.

Hemingway and his wife returned to Toronto where their son Jack was born.  However, Hemingway missed Paris and the social set.  He wanted to be an author, not a journalist.  In 1926, he published The Sun Also Rises to critical acclaim.  He divorced and married Pauline Pfeiffer, also a Vogue magazine reporter.

Hemingway wrote a boxing story "Fifty Grand" followed by "Death in the Afternoon", a bullfighting story.  After a 1933 safari in Africa, he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro.  To Have and Have Not came in 1937.  After spending time in Spain during its Civil War, Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column the same year.

Hemingway penned For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940.  Four years later he was present during the Normandy landings on a ship.  The writer was also present at his beloved city of Paris during its liberation.  In 1947, Hemingway was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in World War II.

In 1946, Hemingway wrote The Garden of Eden.  In 1952, he published The Old Man and the Sea which won the Pulitzer Prize.  Two years later, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In his later years, Hemingway suffered from headaches, high blood pressure, weight gain and diabetes.  His alcoholism complicated these problems.  He slipped into a depression and committed suicide in 1961.

Ken Burns is producing a series about Ernest Hemingway due out in 2019.

Monday 30 May 2016

Country Music

"Country music is the people's music.  It just speaks about real life and about truth and it tells things how they really are." (Faith Hill)

Country music knows how to tell a story, with the aid of fiddles, banjos and steel guitars  Ken Burns knows how to tell a story, with the aid of cameras, tripods and microphones.  The two are uniting for the filmmaker's latest project, Country Music, due out in 2018.  As Ken Burns explains:

"From southern Appalachia's songs of struggle, heartbreak and faith to the rollicking western swing of Texas, from California honky tonks to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, we will follow the evolution of country music over the course of the twentieth century, as it eventually merged to be America's music."

Johnny Cash's Bootleg Volume III:  Live Around the World courtesy https://plus.google.com/u/0/+Johnnycashonline/posts.

According to Wikipedia, country music can be divided into six generations;

  • 1920's:  hillbilly music from the South ex. Carter family, Jimmie Rodgers
  • 1930's/1940's:  cowboy songs, western swing, boogie ex. Bob Willis, Johnny Barfield
  • 1950's/1960's:  bluegrass, gospel, honky tonk, rockabilly ex. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis
  • 1970's/1980's:  outlaw country, country pop, countrypolitan, folk rock ex. Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, John Denver
  • 1990's:  worldwide phenomenon of country rock ex. Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw
  • 2000's to present:  country pop, country rap ex. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum

Carrie Underwood's Just a Dream courtesy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLntFKtR66g.

Just as America is made up of many different ethnicities, country music is made up of many different influences.  From its humble roots, it evolved into a world phenomenon in the 1990's in large part thanks to Garth Brooks.  The genre is more popular than ever today.  One thing remains the same: country music continues to weave a good tale.  

Sunday 29 May 2016


"Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room.  Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America -- not on the battlefields of Vietnam." (Marshall McLuhan)

Anti Vietnam War Rally at National Mall in Washington DC circa 1971 courtesy https://www.pinterest.com/pin/24980972904463946/.

It started with John F. Kennedy sending some troops into Southeast Asia.  It killed President Johnson's bid for a second term in office.  It led to a massacre at Kent State University.  It ended with President Ford's order to evacuate people via helicopter from the American Embassy roof at the Fall of Saigon.  The Vietnam War polarized the nation of America.  Some were deeply committed to the war, even laid down their lives for the cause. Others vehemently protested on college campuses.  Still others dodged the draft, even moving to Canada to avoid serving.  

Unlike the First World War and Second World War, the Vietnam War was televised (http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/04/girl-in-picture.html).  For the first time, the carnage was brought into people's living rooms via the evening news.  "Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room.  Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America -- not on the battlefields of Vietnam," explained Marshall McLuhan.  Young American men were coming home from Southeast Asia in body bags at an alarming rate.  It became increasingly hard for American leaders to justify the death toll.

As Ken Burns explains:  "The Vietnam War...took the lives of 58,000 Americans and as many as 3 million Vietnamese, polarized American society as nothing has since the Civil War [and] fundamentally challenged America's faith in our leaders, our government and our most respected institutions..."  Ken Burns series, due out next year, attempts to explain why the war happened and why it polarized America.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Jackie Robinson

"Jackie Robinson was a sitter inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides." 
(Martin Luther King Jr.)

Pitchers threw at his head.  Runners tried to spike him.  Players taunted him.  Fans issued death threats.  The Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson, despite all of the abuse, turned the other cheek.  It was through his talent on the baseball field, rather than through fighting back, that he earned the respect of the nation.  
Athlete in UCLA track uniform at the apex of a jump, with legs lunging forward, against a background of an academic building.

Born in rural Georgia and raised in Pasadena, California, Jackie Robinson faced adversity at an early age when his father walked out on his family.  Robinson excelled as an athlete, lettering in four sports at the U.C.L.A.  He joined the Army where he even learned how to box.  It was during his Army stint that he was reprimanded for sitting beside a white person on a bus.  It would be the first of many reprimands.

Black man in military uniform featuring the crossed-sabre insignia of a U.S. Cavalry unit receives a salute from a person out of view.

Brooklyn Dodgers coach Branch Rickey saw promise in Jackie Robinson.  He asked him to sign with his farm team, the Montreal Royals.  He had one question for the athlete:  "Did he have the guts?"  Jackie immediately said yes.  Mr. Rickey qualified the question:  "Did he have the guts not to fight back?"  Jackie promised to keep his temper in check.

Two white men in baseball uniform with back to camera watch a black baseball player take batting practice

Jackie Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals courtesy 

In 1947, Jackie broke the colour barrier in major league baseball when he played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It was a historic occasion, but it was the first step in the process of integration.  Travelling with the team, Jackie was sometimes banned from the all white hotels.Some Dodgers voiced formal complaints about a black being on the team.  IN an era when Black sports reporters still sat in the stands rather than the press box, fans booed Jackie.  Some stadiums banned the baseball club they had a Black player on their team.  And Phillies player, and later manager, Ben Chapman called Jackie a "nigger" and told him to "Go back to the cotton fields."  The abuse was so volatile that it made headlines in the New York papers.  

Jackie Robinson poses with Ben Chapman circa 1947, a publicity stunt to prove that Chapman was not a racist courtesy http://seamheads.com/2013/04/20/ben-chapman-and-jackie-robinson/.

However, some individuals stood behind Jackie.  Mr. Rickey continued to support his newest player.  A black sports writer befriended Jackie and followed him from game to game, reporting on his success.  And Jackie's wife, Rachel, was always by his side, giving Jackie a stability that he never had when he was a little boy.  

Jackie led the Dodgers to a World Series pennant in 1955 and retired two years later, to the disappointment of his loyal fans.  In a shocking twist, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.  The times were changing.  

Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series in 1955 courtesy http://lipulse.com/2015/10/02/celebrating-the-60th-anniversary-of-the-dodgers-world-series-win/.

Jackie worked as an executive at Chock Full of Nuts.  He became the voice of the civil rights movement.  He never hesitated to speak up about what was wrong with America.  He participated in the famous March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech in 1963.  Jackie never had the chance to enjoy his retirement.  He succumbed to diabetes and heart disease at the young age of 53.

Jackie Robinson, with wife Rachel on the right and son David on the left, participates in the famous March on Washington in 1963 courtesy 

Friday 27 May 2016

Cancer: Emperor of All Maladies

"In 2010, more than 600,000 Americans and more than 7 million humans around the world will die of cancer" (https://www.amazon.ca/Emperor-All-Maladies-Biography-Cancer/dp/1439170916). 

Cancer touches all of us.  We all know a relative, a friend or a co-worker who has suffered from cancer.  Ken Burns teamed up with Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, to discuss the disease, the patients and the survivors in the documentary Cancer:  Emperor of All Maladies.  Above all, this film is about the heroism displayed by the survivors.

For Ken Burns, this is a personal journey.  "My work as a filmmaker is directly linked to the death of my mother from cancer when I was 11.  From the age of three, I watched her suffer and struggle with this awful disease, forever creating for me a desire to explore the past and to listen deeply to the stories that we all have to tell."

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, coming at the disease from the perspective of a physician, demonstrates a "profound compassion" for patients, their families and their oncologists.  His book, The Emperor of All Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction.  He is also an associate professor at Columbia University who spends much of his time researching cancer, its origin and its treatment.

Thursday 26 May 2016

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

"Between them Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt for nineteen of the first forty-five years of the twentieth century, years during which much of the modern world -- and the modern state -- was created." (Ken Burns)

No other American family has touched more lives than the Roosevelt's.  Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt shared a common love for politics and people.  They shared a common courage in the face of fear and perseverance in the face of adversity.  They also shared a common relative, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ken Burns series The Roosevelts:  An Intimate History courtesy http://www.weta.org/tv/program/roosevelts-intimate-history.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, had his finger on the pulse of America.  He was a Populist, concerned about the farmers, about grassroots America.  He was also concerned about nature, making a pilgrimage to Yellowstone, the first of America's National Parks.  Theodore Roosevelt was fearless.  While delivering a political speech on one occasion, an assassin shot him. The bullet lodged within a quarter inch of his heart.  However, Theodore insisted on delivering the speech, which lasted a full hour.  Only then did he let his attendants take him to the hospital.

Speed reader Theodore Roosevelt used to read a book a day courtesy

Theodore's fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, became the 32nd President of the United States.  While Theodore was a Republican, Franklin was a Democrat.  The two shared much in common.  Both were fearless.  After contracting polio at Campobello Island at the age of 39, Franklin insisted on learning how to "walk" again using braces and crutches.  Suffering immense pain, he would practise standing so he could deliver a speech, determined to make a political comeback.  Franklin campaigned in every county of New York State in his bid for governor.  Later he ran an extensive presidential campaign.  No stranger to pain and suffering, it was Franklin who led the nation through the Great Depression, building moral through his fireside radio chats.  It was Franklin who delivered the famous "Today will live in infamy speech" after the Pearl Harbor attack. 

A young FDR courtesy 

Franklin married Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore's niece.  The couple raised five children.  Eleanor, always supportive of her husband's political career, helped him campaign.  More than any other First Lady, she worked diligently to promote her husband's career.  Eleanor wrote a column in a daily newspaper.  She promoted childhood literacy.  She furthered the cause of Black Americans.  And long after her husband passed away, Eleanor was still working.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

The Address

"[Delivering the Address] is a minefield for these kids [which involves] acts of courage which are embedded in this speech." (Ken Burns)

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, written over 150 years ago, is arguably the most famous speech delivered by an American President (http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2011/11/to-be-continued.html).  Ken Burns' documentary follows Greenwood's students as they memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.

The Greenwood School is a boarding school for fifty boys with learning disorders such as dyslexia and ADD.  Vermont's Greenwood School has used the Address as a teaching tool for over 35 years.  The boys spend a good chunk of time learning and memorizing the Address which they recite at a recital.  Ken Burns has served as a judge at the recital for ten years.

Ken Burns says that due to their learning disorders,, "[Delivering the Address] is a minefield for these kids [which involves] acts of courage which are embedded in this speech."
 Headmaster Stewart Miller points out that the Gettysburg Address is about "finding the inner strength to push through. What we talk about is grit -- setting a goal and sticking to it."

Lincoln's speech served to embolden the Union troops to keep fighting, to persevere against all odds after one of the worst defeats in the Civil War.  His speech marked the turning point in the war.  The Union regained its courage and fought on, achieving victory a year and a half later.

Greenwood's Headmaster explains that if you put something to memory, "you own it".  Ken Burns' is challenging all Americans to learn or relearn the Address, which is inscribed on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.  The speech may be short, but it is powerful and gains more meaning with the passage of time.  Like the Greenwood students, we can all learn something from this speech.

Greenwood School student recites Gettsyburg Address courtesy 

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit

"I bless Yosemite for waking me up to the natural wonders but also for waking me up to my own history.  I was able to reclaim an entire trip that I had put away and lost.  I could feel my dad's hand in mine as we walked and the hike we took to the little waterfall." (Ken Burns)

Vernal Falls, Yosemite circa 1889 by Thomas Hill courtesy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yosemite_National_Park.

After three intense days of filming his documentary Yosemite:  A Gathering of Spirit, Ken Burns found himself restless and unable to sleep.  That night he had a vivid memory of visiting another National Park, Shenandoah in Virginia, with his father when his mother was dying of cancer.  The trip was a chance to realize nature's beauty, to lift his demoralized spirits.  It was also a chance to reconnect with his father.  "I bless Yosemite for waking me up to the natural wonders but also for waking me up to my own history.  I was able to reclaim an entire trip that I had put away and lost.  I could feel my dad's hand in mine as we walked and the hike we took to the little waterfall"  (http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/2016/04/14/ken-burns-national-parks-americas-best-idea/82499256/).

Yosemite:  A Gathering of Spirit focusses on the fact that "National Parks have a way of connecting people not just to their soil, but to their soul."  While all the National Parks are beautiful, people who have visited more than one tend to have a favourite.  It's not just what people see in the Parks, but who they experience it with.  Writer Dayton Duncan, who has visited all 59 National Parks, prefers National Glacier Park, which he visited with his future wife.  

Glenns Lake

Glacier Park, Montana courtesy 

There is something revolutionary about America's National Parks.  As Duncan explains:  "National Parks are the Declaration of Independence expressed on the landscape.  We were the first nation in the history of mankind to say that the most special places should be set aside not for royalty, not for the rich, not for the well-connected, but for everyone and for all time."  

Since 1904, 13.5 billion visitors have flocked to America's National Park sites.  As of 2014, over 3.8 million people have visited Yosemite alone.  The beauty of Yosemite is its giant sequoias.  For someone who has never visited a National Park, Ken Burns recommends starting with the original one, Yellowstone, for its "geysers, thermal pools, waterfalls, and wildlife".  

However, Burns points out that Americans don't have to travel very far to find a Park:  every state has a National Park or a national monument except Delaware.  

Monday 23 May 2016

The Dust Bowl

Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas circa 1938 courtesy http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/photos/.

John Steinbeck wrote books about it.  Dorothy Lange photographed it.  Woody Guthrie wrote ballads about it.  It was the Great American Dust Bowl.  In the 1930's, the American west was struck by Black Blizzards. Dust choked people's lungs and blinded their eyes.  It invaded people's houses and destroyed their crops. It stopped automobiles and derailed freight trains.   The resulting drought drove tens of thousands of families from their farms.  You can read about the Dirty Thirties in Don Brown's picture book The Great American Dust Bowl (https://www.amazon.ca/Great-American-Dust-Bowl/dp/0547815506).

Famous photo by Dorothea Lange courtesy http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/photos/.

Ken Burns "The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man made ecological disaster in American history in which the frenzied Wheat Boom of the Great Plow Up, followed by a decade long drought during the 1930's nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation" (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/about/overview/).  

At the turn of the last century, European immigrants, as well as Americans, settled the Great Plains, a grasslands area that had not previously been farmed.  In the 1920's, these farmers enjoyed a wheat boom thanks to advanced technology and the thriving economy in the United States.  However, prices plummeted after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Rather than harvesting less wheat, farmers harvested more in an attempt to counteract the effects of the Great Depression.  Fields were left exposed and vulnerable to drought, which hit in 1932 (http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_01.html).

Panic sets in on Wall Street in New York City after Stock Market Crash of 1929 courtesy 

The previously fertile soil turned into dirt.  The wind stirred it up and it accumulated into massive clouds called "black blizzards" (http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/05/black-blizzard.html). The dust lodged itself in people's homes and in their lungs.  Many developped "dust pneumonia".  No longer able to farm, they joined the mass exodus of Okies headed to California to pick fruit, a journey so aptly illustrated by Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2015/11/tom-joads-ill-be-there-speech.html).

Black Blizzard approaches Elkhart, Kansas circa 1937 courtesy https://prairieskies.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/31.jpg.

Ken Burns says that The Dust Bowl is also a story of perseverance. Burns interviewed 26 survivors and shared their stories.  His documentary chronicles the families who struggled to hold onto their land, New Deal programs which kept families afloat, and attempts by government and farmers to develop new strategies of farming and land conservation (http://americanhistory.about.com/od/greatdepression/tp/new_deal_programs.htm).

FDR talks to farmer and his son circa 1936 courtesy http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/photos/.

Sunday 22 May 2016


"When the mayor of Berlin, Gustav Boess, visited New York City in the fall of 1929, one of the questions he had for his host Mayor James J. Walker, was when Prohibition was to go into effect.  The problem was that Prohibition had already been the law of the United States for nearly a decade.  That Boess had to ask tells you plenty about how well it was working." (Michael Lerner)

The Alcoholic Republic talks about the great alcoholic binge that took place in America from 1790 to 1830.   Wives were worried about their husbands drinking away their pay cheques, about them coming home and taking out their frustrations on them and their children, about the possibility of living on the streets (http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/01/carry-nations-hatchetations.html). The Temperance Movement, a direct response to this problem, peaked in 1850 with 238,000 women (http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/temperance_movements.aspx).


In time, the Temperance Movement's strategy changed from one of moral to legal reform.  The Prohibition Party debuted in 1869.  The Women's Christian Temperance Union emerged in 1874.  Their strategy focussed more and more on empowering women.  One way to do this was by securing the vote for women.  The W.C.T.U. joined forces with the suffragettes to make this happen.  
It is no surprise then that right on the tails of the women's right to vote (1919) came Prohibition (1920).  

Reformers were hoping that Prohibition would not only curb drinking, but also improve the quality of life in American towns and cities.  Merchants expected sales of clothing and household goods to rise. Real estate agents expected house prices to rise with the closing of saloons and the improvement of neighbourhoods.  Soft drink companies expected their profits to skyrocket.  Theatre producers expected bigger crowds as Americans looked for new outlets for entertainment.  According to historian Michael Lerner, however, this did not happen.  

Instead, the closing of breweries and saloons led to the loss of thousands of jobs.  Restaurants closed because they could no longer make a profit without a liquor licence.  Theatre revenues also declined.  On the other hand, Prohibition did lead to the rise of bootlegging, speakeasies and organized crime.  Corrupt police officers succumbed to bribes.  The number of "pharmacists" in New York tripled since a pharmacist could prescribe alcohol for many an ailment.  Enrollment at churches increased as well as the number of "self-professed" ministers who could obtain liquor through legal means.


By 1933, the 19th Amendment was repealed.  Many Americans agreed that the experiment had failed, even though Prohibitionists intentions were well-founded.

Saturday 21 May 2016

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

"The National Parks:  America's Best Idea" is nonetheless the story of people...who were willing to devote themselves to saving some of the precious land they loved and in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy." (http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/)

The National Park Service has a presence in 49 of the 50 states (all but Delaware).  It overseas 58 national parks as well as 333 national monuments and historic sites.  "As America expanded westward, pioneers would 'discover' landscapes of such breathtaking and unusual beauty, that written descriptions of the lands were sometimes assumed by people in the East to be works of fiction.  Eventually there emerged a belief that these places should be kept untarnished by development and commerce so they could be experienced by all people." (http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/about/)

US 6th Calvary on top and beside the Fallen Monarch Tree, Yosemite, circa 1899 courtesy https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery.htm?id=B17BC4E5-155D-4519-3EC6B73FCE2806A8.

"The National Parks:  America's Best Idea is nonetheless the story of people...who were willing to devote themselves to saving some of the precious land they loved and in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy."  John Muir, a deeply religious man, found inspiration in the mountains of Yosemite.  James Mason Hutchings, a magazine publisher who promoted Yosemite.  George Masa, a Japanese immigrant, took photographs of North Carolina and Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, which later became a national park.  Marjory Stoneman fell in love with the Florida Everglades and convinced the powers that be to make it a national park.  Adolphe Murie, a young biologist who focussed on protecting the land but also the animals that inhabited it.   And city slicker Thomas Moran, who joined the trek through the Rocky Mountains to Yellowstone River and painted the mural which later convinced Congress to make it a national park. (http://www.yellowstonepark.com/the-history-of-yellowstone-national-park/

Friday 20 May 2016

The War

"Only the soldier really lives the war." (Eric Sevareid)

It is hard to imagine the scope of a war that took 50 to 60 million lives including 400,000 Americans. It touched every corner of the globe.  During the 1940's, everyone was affected by the Second World War.

Ken Burns studies the effects that "the greatest cataclysm in human history" had on residents of these four cities: Mobile, Alabama.  Sacramento, California. Waterbury, Connecticut.  Luverne, Minnesota.  The series is an attempt to explain "the things men do in war and the things war does to men" (https://www.pbs.org/thewar/about_letter_from_producers.htm)

Resident expert Geoffrey Ward wrote the script for Ken Burns series The War and provides much of the commentary.  The War series is divided into seven episodes:

Episode One:  A Necessary War
Episode Two:  When Things Get Tough
Episode Three:  A Deadly Calling
Episode Four:  Pride of Our Nation
Episode Five:  FUBAR
Episode Six:  The Ghost Front
Episode Seven:  A World Without War 

Thursday 19 May 2016

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson

"The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here.  That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (Randy Roberts)

The Battle of the Century in Reno, Nevada circa 1910 courtesy http://onmilwaukee.com/images/articles/ja/jackjohnsonmke/jackjohnsonmke_fullsize_story1.jpg.

Black American Jack Johnson started boxing as a teenager in Galveston, Texas.  A relatively new sport, boxing was banned in some states.  In the late 1800's, Blacks were permitted to box as long as they didn't compete for the ultimate title, Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Johnson made considerable money winning numerous fights against both blacks and whites.  However, one opponent eluded him, James Jeffries, the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  He refused to fight a Black, and chose to retire instead.

In 1908, new heavyweight champion Tommy Burns agreed to box Jack Johnson in Australia for the hefty sum of $30,000.  After Johnson beat on Burns for fourteen rounds, the match was stopped and Johnson declared the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Johnson biographer Randy Roberts explained:  "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here.  That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (http://www.pbs.org/unforgivableblackness/about/)

Johnson's victory sparked a search for a "great white hope", someone to challenge Johnson for the title.  James Jeffries returned to the ring to fight Johnson.  "The Battle of the Century" took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910.  Johnson won the match in the 15th round, sparking nationwide race riots.  "Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson, beating his white opponents, would provoke further unrest." 

Equally troubling for America was Johnson's penchant for white women.  He was frequently seen in the company of white prostitutes Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber.  In 1910, congress passed the Mann Act prohibiting the transportation of women in interstate and foreign commerce "for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose."  Johnson did not take well to being told what to do.  As James Earl Jones explained:  "He was a self defined man.  And this issue of being black was not that relevant to him.  But the issue of his being free was very relevant."  He was about to lose that freedom.  

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act after Belle Schreiber testified against him in court.  Johnson fled the country and spent several years as a fugitive in Europe.  In the meantime, he lost his world title to Jess Willard in Cuba.  Finally, in 1920, Johnson returned to America where he served his time in prison.  In 1946, after someone directed a racist comment at him in a restaurant, he drove home, swerved and was killed in an accident.

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip

It reads like a movie script:  "Two men and a dog cross American continent in Winton roadster!"  Normally, such a story would not merit the first page of the newspaper.  However, back in 1903, such a trek was no small feat.

Photo of Horatio's Winton touring car courtesy www.pbs.org.

Horatio Nelson Jackson, a Vermont doctor on vacation in San Francisco, with no car and little driving experience, took a $50 dare to cross the United States in a horseless carriage.  He enlisted the aid of a local mechanic, Sewall K. Crocker, and the two men packed up his new Winton touring car in San Francisco, and headed east across the desert.  At only 20 horsepower, the touring car did not go very fast; of course, it had no roof or windshield so the drivers had to wear goggles.  In the day and age before paved roads (only 150 miles of the entire trek were paved), before gas stations, and before road maps, Dr. Jackson had to rely on his own resources.

Photo of Horatio's pit bull, Bud, courtesy www.pbs.org.

On the trek, the travelling companions saw caravans of pioneers in Conestoga wagons; they met cowboys with lariats which came in handy to tow their roadster out of sandhills; they encountered ranchers' wives who served them home-cooked meals for a chance to ride in the new automobile; and they even photographed Native Indians in full headdress (in the last days of the frontier).  They also met a pit bull in Idaho which Horatio adopted and named Bud; he was given his own pair of driving goggles.  The co-drivers crossed streams and saw buffalo wallow; they crossed railroad trestles over wide rivers; their roadster spooked horses not used to motorized vehicles.

Photo of Great Plains Indians courtesy http://1.bp.blogspot.com.

As word spread about Horatio's drive, crowds started to line the streets of the towns that he passed through.  Some locals would give him the wrong directions just so he would head through the town where that person's aunt or grandma or cousin lived.  What a spectacle to see a horseless carriage!  Nineteen hundred and three was the year that Henry Ford started his company; the age of the Model T was still 5 years away and the age of the car for the common man was still at least a a decade away.  Other car companies got in on the act:  Packard and Oldsmobile both dispatched vehicles with drivers to beat Dr. Jackson to New York City.

Photo of Henry Ford with Model T courtesy www.antiques-bible.com.

As Horatio crossed the country, he wrote letter after letter to his wife Bertha with accounts of his adventure:  the flat tires, the burnt out side lanterns, the fuel leak, running out of oil, the tainted water which made Horatio sick, the lost coat (with money inside), the broken drive chain and wheel bearings, and the list goes on.  Even so, Horatio retained an indomitable spirit, bent on finishing the trip that he had started.  After 63 1/2 days, on July 26, the roadster reached New York City.  The touring car had sucked up 800 gallons of gasoline.

Photo of New York City circa 1903 courtesy http://img262.imageshack.us.

The car later went into the Smithsonian Institution.  Dr. Jackson returned to Vermont with his dog, Bud where he lived out his life with his wife Bertha.   He later owned a newspaper, bank and radio station and became one of the founders of the American Legion.  Horatio once was fined for driving above the 6 mph speed limit in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont.

Display of Horatio Nelson Jackson, his dog Bud, and the Winton roadster at Smithsonian courtesy http://farm3.static.flickr.com.

Source:  www.en.wikpedia.org

For more information:

1.  Watch the Ken Burns documentary "Horatio's Drive:  America's First Road Trip".
2.  Read the book by the same name by Dayton Duncan & Ken Burns.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Mark Twain

"All of American literature began with Huck Finn." (Ernest Hemingway)

When I visited Disney World with my children, we went for a ride on a Mississippi Riverboat in Frontierland.  The Mississippi River plays a big role in American history.  And Mark Twain, who grew up on the Mississippi, plays a big role in American literature.  

Born Samuel Langhorn Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, the town that served as his inspiration for St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Like Huck Finn, young Samuel used to play for hours along the shores of the Mississippi.  As a teenager, he worked as an apprentice printer, likely inspiring him to later publish his writing.  Later, he worked as a riverboat pilot, serving as fodder for his novels.  During the Civil War, Samuel formed a Confederate militia called the "Marion Rangers" which disbanded after only two weeks.  Samuel moved to Nevada to take up mining.

In 1867, Samuel published his first novel Advice for Little Girls, the first of 30 books.  He adopted the pen name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass briefly followed by Mark Twain.  After travelling in Europe and The Holy Land, Twain published Innocents Abroad, his first bestseller, in 1869.  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer did not appear until 1876 and Huckleberry Finn, his most popular work, in 1884.    

As Ernest Hemingway said:  "All American literature began with Huck Finn." (http://www.pbs.org/marktwain/filmmakers/making_choosing.html).  Referred to as The Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has influenced American authors such as Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner and countless others (https://marktwainahf.wikispaces.com/Impact+of+Huck+Finn+on+American+Literature).

Ken Burns weaves the tale of Mark Twain's life in nine episodes.  Burns points out that Twain loved filling scrapbooks with old pictures and clippings.  He even invented a scrapbook with sticky pages to eliminate the need for glue or paste.  Burns invites you to open up Twain's scrapbook to follow the adventures of his life, the adventures of America.