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A blog about everything: Abraham Lincoln, birds, Jewish history, Elton John, classic literature (Henry James, John Steinbeck vs. Upton Sinclair), America's gun problem, and who-knows-what-else.


A clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln in the late 1850s, at about the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal


Abraham Lincoln, America's first Republican president, seems more alive and vital nowadays than most present-day politicians, even if he technically left us over 150 years ago.  He never used a podium, or a pen, to skirt or obfuscate the important issues of his time.  He didn't just go along to get along.


Tell that to today's Republicans, almost all of whom have subordinated to party politics their private misgivings over President Trump's words and deeds. Whether it's his inflammatory tweets, his off-script public pronouncements, his rampant conflicts of interest, his propensity for appointing to sensitive government posts spectacularly unqualified individuals who are burdened by their own conflicts of interest, or his flagrant attempts, with or without the help of a select group of Congressional toadies, to stop the Russia-collusion investigation, they mustn't criticize, but loudly praise, their leader.  It is only a matter of time before the "Trump Train," filled to capacity with weak-willed party faithful, derails amid noise and smoke, much like many real trains have of late, with government investment in infrastructure still in question. 


The Wearin' o' the Whigs


Lincoln joined the nascent Whig Party in the 1830s when he was a still-rough, frontier-raised, twentysomething, because he disagreed with Democratic President Andrew Jackson's policy against a national bank and Jackson's opposition to the "American system" of internal improvements (infrastructure such as roads and canals) that would have required federal support. But Jackson was popular, and, after Lincoln moved with his family from Kentucky to Indiana and thence to Illinois, he was surrounded by Democrats, and Democrats had a dominant hold on the state for most of his political life. For Lincoln, then, getting ahead politically was going to be quite a challenge.


When Lincoln was elected to his one term in Congress, he didn't use his office to pander to the lowest common denominator. He took his seat in December 1847, toward the end of the Mexican War, and soon gained notoriety for his opposition to it.  The U.S. was clearly the victor and, naturally, that made the war very popular back home. Yet, from the floor of the House, Lincoln challenged then-President Polk to explain just where the alleged Mexican aggression had occurred to justify an American use of force. He was prompted to do this because of congressional legislation introduced to fund the troops' supplies which, in the bill's prefatory language, asserted the justice of the war. On December 22, 1847, he submitted what would become known as the "Spot" Resolutions, which asked, among other things, "…whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens  was so shed, was, or was not, our own soil, at that time…."(The emphases are Lincoln's.)


He was called "Spotty Lincoln" for a good while after that and, although he voted for the troops' supplies, his anti-war position disappointed the voters in his district, including his law partner, Billy Herndon. Some scholars think that his stance ruined his reelection chances, which is why he didn't run again; others think it would have had little effect. In any event, Lincoln didn't run again. He left Washington an unremarkable, one-term congressman and, when he returned to Springfield, far from a hero.


Yes, Lincoln was an unremarkable congressman, but he did try to act against slavery, voting in favor of the Wilmot Proviso numerous times; this legislation would have prevented slavery from being established in the massive territories the U.S. seized in the Mexican War.  (The Wilmot Proviso was never enacted.)


Of more interest was his introduction, in January 1849, of a resolution directing the Congressional Committee of the District of Columbia to report a bill that would permit eligible District voters (free, white men over age 21) a vote on whether slavery shall be abolished in the capital city, with provisions that would, among other things, compensate slave owners for the voluntary manumission of their slaves. Lincoln intended to follow up with the introduction of the legislation described in the resolution, but his modest coalition of support quickly fell apart, and he never formally introduced the bill.  As the late Lincoln biographer, William Lee Miller, reasoned in the beautifully written Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007):


[H]e made the attempt. He certainly did not need to take the trouble to work up and to introduce any bill to end slavery in the District – not for any reason back home in his conservative and racially prejudiced  district, and not for any discernible reason for his own future either in Illinois or on the national stage…. So we may be permitted to infer that he went to the trouble to work it up and present it because he was indeed convinced that slavery in the capital of a nation conceived in liberty was a particularly egregious evil.


Miller's analysis is supported by the fact that Lincoln had first expressed his views on the immorality of slavery and the power of Congress to abolish it in Washington DC when he was an Illinois state legislator over a decade earlier.


What's the Matter with Kansas and Nebraska?


Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate twice in the 1850s. The 1854 enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (10 Stat. 277), which repealed the Missouri Compromise and permitted the extension of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, was so explosive an issue across the North that it effectively crowded out discussion of anything else during both of Lincoln's senatorial races.  But the Democrats still dominated politics in Illinois, which meant that Lincoln's candidacy would be a struggle. Those who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories under the new law were known as "anti-Nebraska men," and they included Democrats as well as Whigs.


In those days, senators were not elected directly by the people, but by state legislators. During the first senate contest in early 1855, Lincoln was just a few votes short of victory.  With each roll call, his numbers dwindled. There were five anti-Nebraska Democrats who consistently withheld their votes from Lincoln out of party loyalty. To prevent the election of a Democrat who was probably not reliably anti-Nebraska (Governor Joel Matteson), Lincoln stepped aside and endorsed Lyman Trumbull, a strong anti-Nebraska Democrat. Lincoln asked his supporters to join the others in voting for Trumbull. They reluctantly obeyed, and Trumbull was elected the newest U.S. Senator from Illinois. Although it pained Lincoln greatly, the slavery issue was so important to him that he willingly subordinated his political ambition to the greater good.


It is difficult to imagine such an act of political selflessness today. If it's not party before country, it's oneself before party before country. Think, for example, of Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, who refused to consider President Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago, thus violating the Senate's Constitutional duty of advice and consent. The Court was forced to work with only eight justices until our current president entered office and nominated the very conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch. Think now of Republican Representative Devin Nunes, Chair of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who has embarrassed himself more than once by engineering on Trump's behalf distractions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.


But let us momentarily shake from ourselves today's political disquietude and return to the disquietude of an earlier era.  In the Illinois senatorial contest of 1858, the massively popular and politically powerful Democrat, Stephen Douglas, was up for reelection. He was not just any popular, powerful senator, either, but the one who had pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the first place, a law that rent political parties and the political order in the free states, and pitted free states against slave states. 


The Kansas-Nebraska controversy continued to escalate for several reasons.  Pro- and anti-slavery settlers were waging a hot war in Kansas, with "Bloody Kansas" being the territory's non-hyperbolic nickname. Douglas clung to his principle of "popular sovereignty," set forth in the Nebraska law, which meant that settlers would decide whether Kansas became a slave state or free. But things worsened with the approval of the Lecompton Constitution (named after the Kansas town in which it was adopted). Lecompton would have kept slavery in Kansas even if a majority of voters had chosen the Constitution without slavery. (For an explanation of how this strange outcome would have worked, I recommend reading – with a focus on the appendices - Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (University of Chicago Press, 1959) by the late political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa.)  


It is easy to understand why Lecompton was widely seen as the product of political corruption that kept anti-slavery settlers from having a voice in their state Constitution's formulation and adoption. Senator Douglas opposed Congress's approval of Lecompton, since it seemed to violate his "popular sovereignty" principle, putting him at odds with President James Buchanan, a fellow Democrat, who had endorsed Lecompton.


The Dreadful Dred Scott Decision


The controversy over Kansas-Nebraska reached a new crisis level the same year as the battle over Lecompton with the Dred Scott decision (Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 [1857]), one of the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court rulings in American history.  The ruling denied standing to a slave, Dred Scott, to sue for his freedom and that of his wife and children, even though his "master" had taken the Scotts from Missouri, a slave state, into Illinois, a free state, and then to the free Minnesota Territory, before eventually returning to Missouri. These moves technically should have resulted in freedom for the Scotts. But Scott, said the Court, as a black man (whether slave or free), was not a citizen of the United States and therefore could not challenge his continued status as a slave, regardless of the merits of his case. 


Chief Justice Roger B. Taney did not believe that the framers had intended to treat enslaved or free blacks as U.S. citizens under the Constitution, and he would not deviate from this strict reading of their intent. Here is just some of the startling language of Taney's majority opinion, which serves as a sad primer on how racist American society was at the time:


They [blacks] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his [the black person's] benefit.


The legislation of the States [which the Court had surveyed in its opinion] therefore shows… the inferior and subject condition of that race at the time the Constitution was adopted, and long afterward, throughout the thirteen States by which that instrument was framed; and it is hardly consistent with the respect due to these States, to suppose that they regarded…, as fellow-citizens and members of the sovereignty, a class of beings whom they had thus stigmatized…. More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens…. [Regarding them as such would] inevitably… [produce] discontent and insubordination among them, and … [endanger] the peace and safety of the State.


Taney continued that, even if public opinion had changed since adoption of the Constitution, this revered instrument still could only be construed with the framers in mind: "…[I]t must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption." The aforementioned late Justice Scalia, an "originalist" in Constitutional interpretation, might have vigorously applauded.


After this long discussion, the Court was able to conclude that the lower tribunal had erred in deciding the matter on the merits, because Dred Scott was not a citizen and thus had no standing to sue.


Dred Scott, the plaintiff, found himself in an existential nightmare.  Because he was a black man, he was not a citizen, and therefore could not be a plaintiff in a legal matter and sue for his freedom.  But because he could not sue for his freedom, he would have to remain a slave, subject only to his master's desire to manumit him. Even worse, a trend was developing among slave states, offended at the increasing anti-slavery clamor in the North, to enact laws prohibiting slave owners from freeing their slaves even if they wanted to. It thus became apparent that slaves and their descendants would remain slaves in perpetuity, with no way out.


But Taney feared that, if he did not address the merits of Scott's claim, some people might draw from the silence the mistaken impression that there could be merit in it, leading to "…serious mischief and injustice in some future suit." Therefore, it was incumbent on the Court, Taney believed, to rule on the merits, anyway.


The chief justice thus went on to proclaim that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories.  Therefore, language in the legislation approving the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which included the Kansas and Nebraska territories and which prohibited the establishment of slavery in the newly-acquired lands, should be considered "void and inoperative." But Taney went further, concluding that whenever a slave owner took his slave from his slave state of residence to a free state, the issue of whether that slave's status changed from slave to free did not depend on the laws of the free state but on the laws of the slave state.


Abraham Lincoln and other anti-Nebraska leaders were afraid that the U.S. Supreme Court was heading in the direction of nationalizing slavery, so that free states could not exclude slavery from their borders. It was just a matter of the issue of slavery extension reaching the Court for decision.


And In This Corner: Lincoln and Douglas Face Off


The preceding is just the back story to Lincoln's senatorial challenge to Douglas, which led to their famed debates on the issue of slavery extension. These debates took place across the length and breadth of Illinois, in the northern, more anti-slavery part of the state, and the southern, more pro-slavery section.


Before getting into the substance of the debates, we should understand that, in Lincoln's time, and as demonstrated in the Dred Scott decision, the entire United States operated on the basis of white supremacy.  It was not a minority or fringe ideology but overwhelmingly definitive of how people lived their lives then, how society was structured.  The abolitionists who favored racial equality were so few in number and viewed as so extreme as to be treated like social and political pariahs.  For decades leading up to the Civil War, being an abolition activist, even in the North, meant living under a threat of mob violence.  There was an especially notorious case of anti-abolition violence that occurred in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, which Lincoln referred to in one of his earliest speeches the following year, in which a mob destroyed the printing press of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy and then murdered him.  Some of the more "upstanding" members of the community may have participated.  A more benign northern expression of anti-abolitionism sometimes involved the forceful facilitation of the unwanted individual's exit from the city limits.


Illinois, dominated in its southern half by Kentuckian emigres, was among the most bigoted states of a generally anti-black North.  Black people were not allowed to come in to the state to live and, if they were already there, they had no real rights to speak of. They certainly couldn't vote.  As we have already seen, Senator Douglas, the proponent of "popular sovereignty," claimed that white people's "sacred right of self-government" guaranteed them the choice of making the territory of Kansas slave or free, as they preferred.


Douglas frequently engaged in race-baiting; he tried to trick Lincoln into coming out in favor of the black vote or other forms of civic participation such as serving on juries. The "Little Giant," as the diminutive Douglas was known, also tried to link his opponent with, heaven forfend, the "amalgamation" of the races. Even though the issue was slavery extension and not the civil rights of free blacks, Douglas intended to distract voters with irrelevant subjects, and thus hurt Lincoln's candidacy.


Lincoln largely succeeded in avoiding the bait. I say "largely" because, at times, he denied supporting civil rights for blacks. But he used none of the coarse, inflammatory, anti-black rhetoric of Douglas, which, if he had, might have helped him with a good number of voters. He also took every opportunity to attack the immoral nature of slavery.  Although numerous Illinoisans opposed slavery extension, many did so only because they didn't want to lose jobs to slaves, and not because they had any sympathy for them or believed that slavery was immoral.  But Lincoln never took the easy road in politics for his own gain and had no taste for racist rabble-rousing, even if historians of today generally agree that his racial views fell short of today's (hopefully) egalitarian standards.


But were they right about that?


As Lincoln kicked off his campaign in Chicago on July 10, 1858, he got himself into a little trouble when he said the following:


…[L]et us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man – this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position – discarding our standard that we have left us.  Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.


This wasn't the first time Lincoln had more than hinted in a public forum that he believed in the universality of the human species, regardless of race. Over a year earlier, on June 26, 1857, in a speech about the political impact of the Dred Scott decision, he disputed Douglas's position, which was in agreement with Chief Justice Taney's, that the Declaration of Independence excluded blacks from its plain language that "all men are created equal." Lincoln framed this brief philosophical statement, as beautiful now as ever, as being an aspirational one.  Certainly, Americans of 1776 had not yet attained equality in their life circumstances, nor had other peoples around the world. The framers:


…did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity…. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality [of being created equal], nor yet, that they [the framers] were about to confer it immediately upon them.


The emphasis above is Lincoln's. He went on to explain:


They [the framers] meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.


Well!  One can actually hear the progressive politician of today uttering these majestic lines and sounding completely contemporary.  But despite Lincoln's forward-looking oratory following Dred Scott, he wasn't a political candidate then, and, given that the Internet hadn't been invented yet, voters during the 1858 senate race couldn't simply Google his prior affirmations and confront him with them. So after Lincoln recommended not "quibbling" about the equality of the races at the start of his 1858 senatorial campaign, according to Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo in his fascinating book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debate That Defined America (Simon & Schuster, 2008), his advisers told him to just stop that. He never again uttered such a surprisingly modern view of humanity while running for elective office.


Douglas, who, along with other Democrats delighted in calling Lincoln and the future president's fellow Republicans "black Republicans" (my emphasis added), derided his adversary in the August 21, 1858, Ottawa, Illinois,  debate to much laughter and applause:


I do not question Mr. Lincoln's conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother, but for my own part, I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever…. He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position….


Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, and over your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves?  If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to [hold] office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of citizenship of the negro.  For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form.  I believe this government was made on the white basis.  I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever [sic], and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians and other inferior races.


Lincoln responded, in part, that:


…[A]nything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse…. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races…. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid them living together upon the footing of perfect equality….I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position…. I hold that notwithstanding of this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…. [I]n the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.


(The emphasis was Lincoln's.)


One could argue that Lincoln had just "caved" on his principles. But notice that he refused to go anywhere near Douglas's dismissive language about blacks; he never claimed that black people were an "inferior race," but insisted on their entitlement to the "natural rights" enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. So while his apparent backtracking on equality may be disheartening to modern ears, the issue before the voters of the time was not civil rights, but the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln did not want to get bogged down in a much more sensitive point that would be a distraction from the emergent issue of the day.


To put it another way, Lincoln knew the pitfalls of expecting too much too soon of the white electorate. More than once he cautioned against ignoring the popular will in a democracy. It came up during his famed, October 16, 1854, anti-Nebraska speech in Peoria, Illinois, when, in the very context of whether equality between the races was attainable were slavery to be extinguished, he acknowledged that white sentiment was utterly opposed to the idea: "A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not [sic] be safely disregarded." Four years later, on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois, the context was Lincoln's contention that Douglas was preparing the public mind for the nationalization of slavery, which could come as early as the next U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Lincoln said: "…[P]ublic sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." Lincoln understood that he could only lead white public opinion so far, given the sociopolitical conditions of his time.


Lincoln lost this election, too.   It was again the state legislature that didn't quite come up with the votes for him, although, for this run, the newly-established Republican Party (formed for the sole purpose of opposing the extension of slavery into the territories) was united behind him. The pre-Republican anti-Nebraska men had not been fully behind him in 1855. However, despite Lincoln's careful avoidance of inflammatory racial rhetoric, and his loss in the legislature, more votes were cast by the people for Republican legislators during the election than Democratic. This meant that, with a new census and redistricting coming up that would reflect the explosion in Illinois's northern population over the previous decade, Republicans would likely enjoy more statewide success in the not-too-distant future. But that did not help Lincoln politically in the short term.


Doggies, Horsies, Kitties, Birdies, Bunnies, and Piggies


In political forthrightness and humanity, then, Lincoln could have taught today's political leaders a lesson in civic responsibility. But that's not what this essay is really about.


What is it about? Abe & Fido. No, really. I'm not kidding. To be more exact, it's about Abe & Fido: Lincoln's Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion, which was published by the Chicago Review Press in 2015 and written by Matthew Algeo. The author is fortunate to have had several books published over the years on various topics and his work has been featured on National Public Radio.


Reviewing Lincoln's pre-presidential career as a principled political leader is kind of relevant to his relationship with animals – including Fido – because it's nice to know that he was an all-around good guy. And because one can't help thinking about and discussing Lincoln's character in light of today's abomination of a government in Washington DC, and in too many of our states.


But back to Abe & Fido. It's a slim volume. Lincoln only adopted the dog in 1855, just six years before he left for Washington to become our sixteenth president, and did not take Fido along then because of the poor pooch's sensitive nerves. Besides the limited time frame of Lincoln's and Fido's companionship, there is also very little in the record about Fido in general. In those days, pet dogs of politicians didn't tend to capture the public imagination. As the author points out, there was "no competent veterinary care," nor a vet who might have had a record of Fido's visits. If the dog got sick, home remedies would have to do. There were no pet grooming salons, no pet food stores, and no mass-produced pet toys. There also were no animal cruelty laws. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was still six years away. 


Algeo says that, if a dog did not have a home and lived on the street, Man's Best Friend was literally at the mercy of people's whims, be they kind or sadistic. Although the same holds true today, and putting aside factory farming for purposes of this discussion, animal cruelty is now much less common, pets have plenty of human advocates, and there are criminal consequences for people who abuse animals. But back in Lincoln's time, there were no animal shelters. Says Algeo, stray dogs were routinely rounded up and killed, often viciously, in the name of public health and safety. The author goes on non-Fido tangents throughout the book, some of which are relevant to the main subject and some of which are not. In a relevant passage, Algeo quotes abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who observed a dog "cull" in 1841 New York City:


The poor creatures are knocked down on the pavement and beat to death…. The company of dog-killers themselves are a frightful sight, with their bloody clubs and spattered garments…. I always run from the window when I hear them.


Then there was Lincoln, whose kindness to animals, from boyhood on, was way ahead of its time. Long before Fido was born, long before the boy, Abe, gave a second thought to going into politics, he advocated for the feelings of animals. Acquaintances later remembered that he had written an essay about animal cruelty for one of his few, brief periods in school. As Algeo relates, Lincoln not only stopped his little playmates from placing hot coals on turtles' outer shells, but one day declared, as someone recalled: "An ant's life was to it as sweet as ours to us." He cared about ants, which has to be rare, even today. Just being interested in ants is still almost exclusively the province of entomologists!


Lest anyone assume that these stories are mere tall tales, no truer than the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree, they in fact are available to read in a very fat, still-in-print volume from the University of Illinois Press, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, published in 1998 and edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. It is a collection of hundreds of pages of surprisingly readable notes jotted down after Lincoln's assassination by the president's surviving law partner, Herndon, as he personally interviewed many dozens of people who had known Lincoln personally. Correspondence addressed to Herndon by some of the late president's old friends and colleagues is also included.


Algeo summarizes many of the animal-related anecdotes that virtually any student of Lincoln would have already read about, interspersed among discussions of animal cruelty and an abbreviated overview, with some minor mistakes, of Lincoln's life and career.


(Mistakes include referring to the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a "transparent attempt to circumvent the Missouri Compromise of 1820…." As we have seen, the Act more than circumvented the Missouri Compromise. It expressly repealed it! Algeo also claims that Lincoln had "withdrawn from politics" by 1855, which was around the time that the future president acquired Fido. In fact, Lincoln had returned to politics by 1854, when he stumped across Illinois against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and then ran for the U.S. Senate early the following year.)


To return to familiar instances of Lincoln's kindness toward animals, Algeo includes the time that Lincoln was "all fixed up" in nice clothing and on his way somewhere when he came upon a huge hog hopelessly stuck in the mud, which hog he freed from the mire despite what the selfless act must have done to his outfit. Yes, Algeo mentions the time that Lincoln trailed behind his lawyer colleagues on the way to court when he found a couple of helpless baby birds on the ground, which Lincoln assumed had been blown out of the nest during a storm, and wouldn't leave the thicket until he had found the birds' nest and safely returned the babies to it. Said Lincoln later to his bemused companions, "I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother." (Anticipatory note to my birdwatching friends: I agree that it is entirely possible that the baby birds were on the ground because they had just fledged, but Lincoln's heart was still in the right place.)


Yes, Algeo describes the time that Lincoln, as a young man of 22 helping his family make their arduous, 1830 move from Indiana to Illinois, refused to leave their little dog behind after it either jumped or fell off one of the Lincolns' oxcarts as they rolled with difficulty through an icy stream. Without a thought, Lincoln lowered himself into the waste-deep, frigid water and pushed through until he came upon the dog and brought it back the same way he'd gone to retrieve it.


Admittedly, Lincoln was in his physical prime, which literally meant that he was lifting weights (actually, sizeable, everyday objects) so ridiculously heavy – in one instance, one thousand pounds, according to several friends – that no one else could do it; that within months of settling in New Salem, Illinois, he would beat all ruffian comers who challenged him to wrestle; and that he generally exhibited remarkable athleticism wherever he went and in whatever he did. Several years later, when he was campaigning for the Illinois legislature, he espied a brawl on the edge of a gathering in which a friend was taking a beating. Lincoln stopped his speech long enough to elbow through the crowd until he reached the scene and, according to more than one account, removed the aggressors from the fray by flinging them aside as if they were "boys."


On the frontier, where physical prowess was prized more than any other trait among men living a rough and trying existence, Lincoln tended to best everyone he came in contact with. Given the relative lack of sentimentality people harbored in those days about pets and other animals, a Goliath of a man could not have been expected any more than an average one to save a little dog under those cold, wet circumstances of 1830. It would have been impractical, unpleasant, and possibly very dangerous. Yet Lincoln did.


The author, Algeo, may have been unaware of some other instances of animals in peril in which Lincoln intervened, and usually was able to help.  There was the sow trying to eat its piglet, which incident Lincoln, a grown man and a lawyer by that time, brought to a halt.   According to Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1994), Lincoln's young son, Bob, with friends, "put on a dog show in the family barn. To get the canines to rise up, the children slung ropes over a rafter then tied them around the dogs' necks, practically hanging them." In horror, Lincoln discovered what they were doing, angrily ended the mischief, and severely scolded his son. Apparently, Bob didn't share his father's innate aversion to all forms of animal mistreatment.


Also not discussed in Abe & Fido was one of countless heartbreaking incidents of the Civil War. One of the president's least favorite jobs was reviewing the hundreds of cases in which the U.S. Army had recommended the firing squad for Union soldiers. Lincoln ruefully dubbed the days he set aside for review of these matters "butcher days." A soldier's offense could range from desertion to falling asleep during a night watch. One day, Lincoln came across the case of a 16-year-old boy who had crippled his horse to avoid going into battle.  It was too late to help the horse, and Lincoln saw the cruelty of what the boy had done to avoid serving, but, in recognizing the immature and somewhat irrational nature of the typical 16-year-old, he saved the boy from capital punishment.


One of the most poignant, if little known, scenes of Lincoln's presidency occurred in February 1864 and involved a fire in the president's stables that turned out to be the work of an arsonist. The stables, situated between the White House and the Treasury Building, had set off a fire alarm.  Lincoln himself "raced to the scene" from the executive mansion, as Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her bestseller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Goodwin quotes a member of his guard, Robert McBride, who was also on the scene, thusly: "When he reached the boxwood hedge that served as an enclosure to the stables, …he sprang over it like a deer….[W]ith his own hands [he] burst open the stable door," but the quickly advancing fire had made it impossible to save the horses. Others who were there had to restrain Lincoln from going in to rescue the animals. Later, McBride "found Lincoln in tears."


Goodwin suggests that the tears were prompted by the knowledge that one of the horses had belonged to his dead son, Willie, who had passed away from typhoid fever in the White House almost exactly two years earlier.  While I am sure that the connection to Willie was a factor in his grief, it is evident to me that the chief reason for Lincoln's sorrow was the awful fate that befell the horses, which undoubtedly suffered greatly as the fire consumed all. Lincoln would have the stables rebuilt and acquire new horses, but the tragic nature of the fire would remain.


Occurring thirty years after his physical prime, this sad story, in which Lincoln leapt "like a deer" over some hedges to reach the burning stables, shows that he had lost little (if any) of his athleticism, or his bravery.


The presidential stables incident is not mentioned in Abe & Fido, either. Neither does Fido take up that much space in Abe & Fido. The author, Matthew Algeo, does provide an incomplete list of some of the many animals that became White House residents: "[K]ittens, rabbits, goats, and ponies…." These pets were available for the president's enjoyment, too, despite being mainly his sons' beloved companions.  "Lincoln was very fond of the goats," Algeo writes. "He enjoyed watching them frolic on the lawn."  And there was a new family dog, Jip. 


Despite giving little real space to Fido in his book, Algeo ably explains how Lincoln acquired the gorgeous, thick-coated mutt, adjudged to be part golden retriever.  Fido was likely what we today would call a "rescue" animal. Algeo conjures some attractive mental images of Lincoln and Fido doing things together:


Throughout the week, Lincoln ran errands with Fido faithfully tagging along. They might stop at Diller's drugstore, where Lincoln would fill a prescription and perhaps enjoy a flavored soda. And there were daily trips to the post office to collect his mail…. [A] large pile of letters, neatly wrapped, always awaited him.  Fido would often carry these bundles in his mouth to save his master the trouble.


"Say 'Cheese,' Fido! That's a Good Boy."


Most interesting is Algeo's narrative of when, how, and by whom the three rare photos of Fido, which are reproduced in Abe & Fido and were not discovered (or rediscovered) until the twentieth century, were identified. It happened in 1940 and an octogenarian named John Linden Roll performed the task. Roll's Springfield family had agreed to adopt the dog upon the Lincolns' 1861 move to Washington, when Roll was a small boy. Fido already knew the Rolls well, since the Lincoln boys, who were playmates of the Roll boys, usually brought the dog along with them when they visited. 


The book includes a picture of 89-year-old John Linden Roll taken in 1943 not long before his death. A framed, photographic portrait of President Lincoln appropriately dominates the background. Roll, who clearly remembered where he and his family were and what they were doing when they learned of Lincoln's death in April 1865 (they were gathered at the table for supper), looks like a typical elderly man of the World War Two era – or the early twenty-first century.  Wearing a dress shirt and a sleek-looking, striped tie kept together with a clasp, wire-rimmed glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, Roll reclines solemnly in an ornately carved, Victorian-period rocking-chair, his thin, long, tired face directed toward the camera.


Our awareness of Roll's time with Fido, and his stature as a friend and neighbor to the future president and the rest of the Lincolns, affords him an extraordinary aura of ordinariness. It is this super-ordinariness, for years shared by the Lincolns of Springfield, which confirms for us the authenticity of their lives despite Abe Lincoln's monumental achievements. The greatest figures in history were once made of the organic material common to us all, and most days acted in ways consistent with their ordinariness. They breathed and sighed, blinked and yawned, sneezed when the pollen count was high, puttered around the house, gossiped with neighbors, sat on the porch after a busy day to read the paper with a glass of water in hand. Yet the greatest of the great – Lincoln - possessed that unidentifiable something, in his notably ordinary existence, that brought him forward at just the right moment to save a nation, the first democracy of modern times.


(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, 2018. All rights reserved.

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What a load of bird books!

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Reading what I consider “classic” bird literature—dating from the 19th century or the early-to-middle 20th—is a favorite pastime, almost as enjoyable as experiencing birds firsthand. I not only learn about birds, but can reflect on the development of human attitudes toward them.

Sometimes, the writers of these pioneering books engage in the big no-no of ornithology, anthropomorphizing their avian subjects. One is supposed to look askance at this practice, but it can be irresistible. Take English bird-lover Len Howard who, from the 1940s through the 60s, opened up her home in Ditchling, Sussex, to wild birds, among them Great Tits, Blue Tits, and Eurasian Blackbirds. She was a terrible offender in the realm of assigning human emotions to her flighty guests. One star of her 1952 Birds as Individuals, a female Great Tit she calls Curley because of the bird’s abnormally “ruffled” crown feathers, is ashamed, according to Howard, of having “very small feet,” which are inadequate for fending off rivals. In the later, soap opera-ish Living with Birds (1956), Howard describes the attempted murder via kitchen drain-drowning of one female blackbird, Darkette, by Stubbs, a jealous competitor for the affections of a flirtatious male named Weaver. The male’s beautiful songs, during which he romantically mimicks the “weaving” of a nest, drive the girls crazy.

Yet Howard’s observations of the birds’ differing personalities and clever antics, which were objectively verifiable, won praise from evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley and the Father of the Modern Field Guide, Roger Tory Peterson.

It’s not the anthropomorphizing of bird behavior that bothers me—one can usually sort through it to isolate facts—but misbehavior on the part of some birding VIPs of yesteryear. Perhaps the most benign act John James Audubon took concerning birds was trying to abscond with baby Mallards as their mother rolled around on the ground in distress. Mama Mallard’s importunate display, he claimed in his 1830s Ornithological Biography, finally dissuaded him from removing the little fluff-bundles from her care. In general, however, as Peterson would later reflect in The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio (1981), Audubon was “in blood up to his elbows,” adding that the artist-hunter “once said that it was not a really good day unless he shot a hundred birds.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, a devoted birder who wrote prodigiously for most of his life about his naturalist’s exploits, was also a notorious big-game hunter. Sensitive to criticism from John Muir on this account, as Douglas Brinkley relates in The Wilderness Warrior (2009), Roosevelt considered changing his trophy-seeking ways. Instead of doing that, he established or expanded 150 national forests, and initiated 51 federal bird reservations, four national game preserves, six national parks, and 18 national monuments. One of his favorite birding companions, John Burroughs, for whom a prestigious nature writing award was named, could himself engage in regrettable behavior.

Burroughs was a U.S. Treasury Department clerk in Washington DC during the Civil War. He recalls in Wake-Robin (1871) that, around the time of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Common Grackles were especially numerous in the trees near the White House, “their polished coats glistening in the sun from very blackness,” while the “air … [was] filled with crackling, splintering, spurting, semi-musical sounds.” Watching the activities of one grackle pair on the Capitol grounds, Burroughs writes: “The female always had her beak loaded with building material, while the male, carrying nothing, seemed to act as her escort, flying a little above and in advance of her, and uttering now and then his husky, discordant note.” He recalls his regression to boyishness at that moment, when he tossed a “lump of earth up at them,” which caused the “frightened mother bird [to drop] her mortar, and the pair scurried away, much put out.” He knows he shouldn’t have done it: “Later they avenged themselves by pilfering my cherries.”

The great Rachel Carson made many acquaintances during her too-brief life. Among them was Ada Govan, a Massachusetts bird-bander and writer of Wings at My Window (1940), a chronicle of Govan’s relationship with backyard birds which hastened her convalescence from hip and spine arthritis. According to Carson biographer Linda Lear (Witness for Nature, 1997), the Silent Spring author avidly corresponded with Govan for years about their love of birds. Lear credits one of Govan’s chapters in Wings at My Window, “Children into Bird Lovers,” with influencing an article that Carson later wrote called, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” But what could Carson have thought of another chapter in the same book, “Enemies of the Kingdom”?

Govan doesn’t hide her bias against certain birds. In “Enemies,” she complains of Blue Jay bullies who drive away some favored species, like Purple Finches and Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks. Trapping 15 juvenile jays, she educates the first youngster by repeatedly crashing a couple of “cake tins” together over the bird’s head. “Before he could recover,” she continues, “I scooped him out of the trap, gave him a shake, turned him upside down, and clamped the band on him…. The bold jay eyes were snapping with terror.” After apparently affording the other jays similar treatment, Govan reports with satisfaction that they “rarely bothered” her feeders.

A self-proclaimed protector of songbirds, Govan still treats jays better than birds of prey. “We were raided by hawks and shrikes,” she notes, “and the slaughter of our innocents was so dreadful I was in despair.” The crisis worsens when a flock of Evening Grosbeaks visits her feeders on successive cold, stormy February days while the threat of a shrike strike is ever-present. When a hawk kills a goldfinch, Govan turns her gun on it. One winter, she shoots seven shrikes and two Sharp-Shinned Hawks.

A contemporary of Govan’s, whose reputation endures in ornithological scholarship, is Margaret Morse Nice. Known especially for her studies of breeding Song Sparrows near her Columbus, Ohio, home, she also wrote in The Watcher at the Nest (1939) of nesting birds at her property in Pelham, Massachusetts. Enchanted by a pair of Magnolia Warblers with an active nest in a juniper, she worries about a nearby red squirrel. “A curious change had come over me during these days of watching the little brood,” Nice admits. “Before this I had never felt any enmity towards red squirrels, and although I knew from my reading that they robbed birds’ nests, I had never felt called upon to interfere. But now it was impossible for me to remain an impartial observer.” That afternoon, Nice’s professionalism surrenders to passion; she gets her shotgun. “A rustle in the blueberry bush announced the arrival of the enemy; a few moments later that menace was ended and a great load had been lifted from my mind.” But the gun’s noise alarms the mother warbler, who, days later, is still so “agitated” at the sight of the ornithologist that the bird can do little but scold. “She devotes her whole mind to protesting against me.”

Bird photographer Herbert K. Job, whose birding adventures recounted in Wild Wings (1905) inspired a young Roger Tory Peterson, was also, like Burroughs, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and a passionate conservationist. Long passages in Wild Wings are devoted to condemning the loss of habitat and, most vociferously, the millinery trade, which decimated the ranks of shorebirds and waders for their plumes at the turn of the last century. Still, if Job had to really bother a nesting seabird so as to photograph it, Job was little bothered.

On Seal Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Job took pictures of Herring Gulls, Black Guillemots and an unfortunate Leach’s Storm-Petrel trying to incubate its “single white egg” in a burrow. He writes of the adversity the Leach’s faced every day: stray cats “fat and flourishing,” a dog “chewing up a poor petrel.” (“Poor birds!” he laments.) But Job has a job to do, and does it. “When I undertook to pose and photograph one [Leach’s] that I had dug up for that purpose,” he relates, “I had to resign myself to a two hours’ struggle with a ceaselessly active automaton that could do nearly everything except keep still.” Two pages hence one sees the result, a picture of the presumably exhausted bird outside of its burrow, on the mostly bare ground, with perhaps little strength left to resist roving stray cats or dogs.

The “Right Honourable” Malcolm MacDonald, as he is identified in his The Birds of Brewery Creek (1947), was British High Commissioner in Canada during the Second World War, which allowed him to observe the movements of migratory birds in a swampy area near his temporary Ottawa, Ontario, home. A bird admirer on both sides of the Atlantic, he once entertained the idea of submitting a humorous counterpoint to a letter that then British Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain had published in The Times of London, in which Chamberlain reported his sighting of a Gray Wagtail in St. James Park. In MacDonald’s response, the wagtail would have written to The Times to report the sighting of a Chancellor of the Exchequer in the same park. During MacDonald’s Ottawa stay, his favorite hobby in spring and summer entailed locating active bird nests, walking up to them, and peering inside to see how the eggs or nestlings were doing. Once, a Gray Catbird, mother to scrawny, nest-bound babies, emitted a “blood-curdling wail” and “flew” at him, “flapping her wings violently and fluttering round me as if she were going to make a bodily assault upon me.” While the nestlings from this brood fledged, MacDonald acknowledges that another catbird nest he was closely watching came to a sad end: “despoiled, robbed and empty.”

Such tragedies can be instructive. “However careful one is when watching a nest, one cannot help leaving traces, such as footmarks in the grass, which may attract the attention of predatory birds or beasts and lead them to their quarry,” MacDonald realizes. “For these reasons, the casualties among my Song Sparrows were probably more numerous than amongst their better concealed neighbours.” After the war, MacDonald left Brewery Creek; his “footmarks” never betrayed another Song Sparrow nest.

(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2017, All Rights Reserved

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Adele Bildersee, surrounded by books about the Lower East Side of New York and the pre-World War Two world of Yiddish, as well as a compilation of selected writings by Sholem Aleichem

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Over the summer, I came across a book at home that I didn’t know we had: Jewish Post-Biblical History through Great Personalities: From Jochanan ben Zakkai through Moses Mendelssohn, by Adele Bildersee. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Cincinnati published it in 1918. While the book is far from up-to-date – it wasn’t even current as of 1918! – it does provide insight into how many Jews viewed themselves and their history prior to the Holocaust.

But who was Adele Bildersee? I “googled” her, naturally, and found out that she was a second generation Jewish-American born in the New York City of 1883. This just so happened to be the year after the first tidal wave of desperately poor, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe reached Ellis Island in the wake of oppressive measures taken against Jews by Russia’s new czar, Alexander III. These measures also led to many terrible pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the “Pale of Settlement,” where, with few exceptions, Jews residing in the Russian Empire were required to live, and which became increasingly densely populated as more Jews living elsewhere were removed to the Pale.

Adele Bildersee was fortunate that her ancestors had left Russia decades earlier; she missed the unpleasantness to come. She and her siblings devoted their lives to the education of young adults and children in New York, both Jewish and non-Jewish. At the time she wrote Post-Biblical History, she had earned a Masters degree and was an Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College and the principal of the Religious School of Temple Beth-El in Manhattan. Later, Bildersee helped found Brooklyn College and served as a high-level administrator there, besides teaching English, for several decades before retiring in the 1950s. (She died in 1971.) In between things, she received a Ph.D. from Columbia.

Why did Bildersee write this book? As she says in the Preface:

…[T]he writer, in many years of experience as a teacher, has found no work on this subject [of post-Biblical history] suitable for practical use in the classroom. The books that glow with all the pageantry of history and with the color of a delightful style are lacking…. The books that display scholarly erudition pile up details to the bewilderment of the average pupil.

Accordingly in this book the effort has been to select from the pages of post-Biblical Jewish history the outstanding personalities; to present the life and work of each in such a way as to illustrate the spirit of Judaism in his time; and in doing this, to analyze and systematize the complex and abstract subject matter so that it may offer the fewest difficulties to the pupil’s mind; and yet not to sacrifice the warm human interest….

Bildersee writes in the ultra-formal, abstract style of 19th century American non-fiction, which apparently, and unfortunately, had its hold on American non-fiction writing well into the 20th century. I hoped that her style would improve as she began to discuss the “great personalities” in post-Biblical Judaism, and I was pleased to find that her prose loosened up considerably as she went along.

What we learn, though, is much more than just who most of the main Jewish scholars were since the 70 C.E. destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, and what they did. We learn that the tragic nature of Jewish history itself profoundly influenced how Judaism developed, based on where they lived, the towns, countries, and regions from whence they were excluded or expelled, where they fled to, and the religious, economic, social, and educational milieu Jews encountered as they willingly, reluctantly, or were forcibly moved from place to place.

And before we proceed any further, note my disclaimer: although Bildersee’s spelling of the names of scholars, other important individuals, and some historical cities are mostly out-of-date, I will be faithful to her spelling, to keep from confusing myself.

After the Destruction of the Second Temple

The author begins her historical survey with Jewish scholar Jochanan ben Zakkai, who Bildersee says had studied under the great Rabbi Hillel and lived in the decades following 70 C.E. He first had to reestablish the Sanhedrin (Jewish judicial body) in Palestine, outside Jerusalem, along with a school for the next generation of scholars. In those days, and for a long time thence, rabbis taught on their own time, out of sheer love of Judaism, since they still had to make a living, whether it was in agriculture or something else. School was closed at “times of sowing and reaping.”

The first major challenge to Jewish studies – and the existence of Judaism itself – came under Roman Emperor Hadrian, who “forbade the study of the [Jewish] Law, and punished mercilessly those who tried to evade his decree.” Continues the author rather graphically, “Those teachers who dared still to conduct schools were wrapped in the scrolls of their Law and set afire, or were torn to a slow death with sharp iron prongs.” And many more such atrocities were to come as history proceeded, Bildersee lets us know. Legend has it that Rabbi Akiba, who defied Hadrian and continued to teach, was condemned to “die by torture” and surprised his persecutors by joyfully reciting prayers, as he suffered, that celebrated God. Before his trouble with the authorities, thankfully, he had given time to organizing the Jewish oral tradition.

Rabbi Meir, who studied under Akiba, continued his mentor’s work of organizing Jewish thought and later became known as the “Jewish Aesop.” His sayings could be quite charmingly, and touchingly, familiar, if expressed somewhat differently from what one might hear nowadays: “Look not to the vessel, but to its contents.” Or: “Despise no one, high or low, for all men are equal before God.”

When the Roman Empire, which still occupied Palestine, adopted Christianity, the conditions of Jewish life badly deteriorated. Jews were burdened with heavy taxes and the authorities disrupted their worship, leading to the community’s humiliation and oppression. Thus, the center of Jewish life and learning moved to Babylonia. There work continued on the Mishnah, a kind of restatement of oral tradition, first conceived of by Rabbi Akiba, which sort of made Jewish Law a bit like today’s British and American common law, in which religious teachings were based on a “great body of opinions,” or precedent, that had grown up over time. With the Gemara, a kind of supplement or appendix to the Mishnah, what would soon become known as the Talmud began to take shape. Talmudic sayings appearing around this time include: “The greatest of heroes is he who turns an enemy into a friend.” Or: “Rather be persecuted than persecutor.” (Jews would expertly adhere to the latter slice of wisdom over the coming millennia.)

Life in Babylonia

Jewish scholarship in Babylonia became the go-to source for guidance on Jewish Law for all of the world’s Jews (many of whom had been seeking more hospitable places to live during this time). Bildersee says that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had tried unsuccessfully to shut down the practice of Judaism, through persuasion, war, and the closing of schools, but eventually tolerated the presence of Jews in an increasingly Muslim world so long as he could tax them.

In this era, roughly the 6th century C.E., heads of Jewish schools, once they reopened, were called “Gaon” (singular) and “Gaonim” (plural). The cities of Sura and Pumbeditha in Babylonia (situated in modern-day Iraq!) became the place for Jewish students from all over the broadening diaspora to travel for a semi-annual “assembly,” where they would discuss previous assignments and receive new ones. These schools took Jewish learning from the third century all the way up to the Middle Ages, when they declined (perhaps due to political and religious conflict) and Jews began looking to Spain, which had become a new Jewish destination, for religious guidance.

Saadia, recruited from Egypt, says Bildersee, was the last prominent Gaon to teach in Babylonia, and a great scholar of Arabian culture as well:

Saadia’s learning was many-sided: it included not only all branches of Jewish knowledge, but also the Arabian culture of his time…. [H]e was not alone in responding to the influence of the intellectual Arabs. Inspired by them, many Jews were rapidly mastering the sciences and the Arabic version of Greek philosophy.

In fact, by now, in the tenth century, Jews in Babylonia were speaking and writing in Arabic and tended to be unfamiliar with Hebrew. Saadia did everyone a favor by translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic so that both Jews and Muslims in the Middle East could read it.

The Jews in Spain

When the center of Jewish scholarship relocated to Cordova in Spain, the region was governed by Muslims; fortunately, the Jews and Muslims of that time and place got along well, sharing knowledge of science, philosophy, and Far East literature with each other and with contacts in Christian Europe.

The Jewish community and Jewish scholarship in Spain, as portrayed in Post-Biblical History, seem a lot more colorful than they had been in Babylonia. Beginning in about the 10th century, Muslim Spain produced Jewish scholars who were also famed for their poetry: Solomon Ibn Gabirol (spiritual poetry), Moses Ibn Ezra (depressing), Benjamin of Tudela (cheerful), and, most notably, Judah Halevi, whose trade was medicine, but whose prolific writings covered a variety of topics and feelings – joy, grief, nature, God, and a longing for Israel, or Zion.

But the greatest Spanish-Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, arose in Cordova during the turmoil of the 12th century, when another contingent of Muslims, says the author, different from the Moors who had theretofore controlled Spain, forced conversions to Islam, sending Christians fleeing to other Christian kingdoms, while “…[s]ynagogues were destroyed, schools were scattered, and the faithful Jews of southern Spain went out into the uncertainty and danger of their perilous exile,” writes Bildersee. Maimonides was and is best known for his work, “Guide to the Perplexed,” which, according to the author, explained to readers how to reconcile Jewish principles with Greek philosophy as taught by Muslims of the time; this was, she says, closely studied by Christian and Muslim scholars alike. Maimonides, also a renowned physician, fled Spain with his family while still a boy due to the aforementioned religious turmoil and, after much bad luck, including the deaths of family members, ended up in Egypt, where he grew up to become a doctor to royalty, and a physician’s physician.

France, Germany, Rashi, and the Rashi Chapel

There were Jewish communities in France and Germany within a few hundred years of the start of the Common Era. Solomon bar Isaac, or, as he was known, Rashi, was born in Troyes, France in the 11th century. As a young student, says Bildersee, he was more devoted to Judaism than to food and clothing, and was known for having spent most of his years as a student in Worms, Germany, the site of one of the two great centers of Jewish learning during this period. The author mentions that, as of 1918, when Post-Biblical History was published, a small building called the “Rashi Chapel” still stood in Worms.

The author skates over the turbulent history of the Jews of Worms and the little Rashi Chapel, but I won’t. In a nutshell: Worms wasn’t exactly a place that Jews would look back on fondly. Exorbitant taxes were exacted on Jewish residents. If King Frederick opposed expulsion of the Jews to the outrage of non-Jews, the king relented. The synagogue and Jewish cemetery were destroyed upon the Jews’ exit. During the Thirty Years’ War, Jews succumbed to a “pestilence” that raged in the Jewish quarter in 1632 and 1635. When France invaded Germany in 1689, troops set the Jewish community ablaze and converted the esteemed Rashi Chapel into a “stable and storehouse.”

During what might be considered a quieter period, Jews nevertheless were expelled from Worms and readmitted multiple times. Things had stabilized by the mid-18th century, and the Chapel was restored during the 19th. But 20 years after the publication of Post-Biblical History, the reconstructed Chapel endured more abuse. It and a neighboring synagogue were torched during Kristallnacht in 1938. The Chapel was again rebuilt after the war and today is back in business, as it were, housing a museum that displays, among other things, copies of the Torah damaged during Kristallnacht.

I now return to Rashi. He had the misfortune of experiencing the Crusades as it tore through Central Europe on the way to the Holy Land. “In blind hate and bloody bigotry,” the author writes, “[the Crusaders] threw themselves on the peaceful Jewish communities on the banks of the Rhine and put to death all who refused to be converted. These awful massacres, the victims of which numbered not less than ten thousand, plunged the Jews of Germany and France into the deepest sorrow.”

Rashi, who made his living working in the vineyards and devoting his spare time to Jewish study as a labor of love, like the rabbis of yore, contributed Talmudic commentary, adding his own interpretations, and served as adviser to the Jews of Christian Europe. His writings helped Jews get through these terrible times, and, as of 1918, according to Bildersee, Jews still treasured them. As the author movingly writes:

When schools were destroyed, when teachers were massacred, when repeated expulsions drove the Jews from France, the fine flower of French Judaism was not entirely lost: the Jews of France carried with them to foreign lands their ideals and their books; they carried with them Rashi’s teachings. Pillage, exile, martyrdom – all could be borne so long as they could go for strength to Bible and Talmud, those fountains of inspiration.

One wonders if Rashi’s writings served to comfort during the Holocaust.

Murderous Lies: the “Blood Libel" and the Theft of the “Host”

Another adviser to the beaten-down Jews of Europe was Worms native Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, who came to prominence in the 13th century, at a time even more terrible than Rashi’s. A subsequent round of the Crusades raged. The quality of European Jewish life commenced a long, downward spiral. Although some Christian clergy objected to the murders of Jews, others encouraged it. Christian heretics, too, were hunted down, tortured, and killed, but at least they didn’t have to contend with two horrible lies concocted and spread by some of the clergy: the “Blood Libel” and the theft of the “Host.” The Blood Libel, which could look forward to a long lifespan lasting several centuries and well into the 20th, claimed that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make their matzos during the Passover holiday, which usually fell somewhat contemporaneously with Easter. Claims that Jews stole the Host, or the consecrated bread of the Church, alleged that, after stealing the Host, they pounded “…it in a mortar until blood flowed from it, or … [pierced] it with knives.” It’s not hard to suspect that these two false claims inflamed the already poisonous, antisemitic atmosphere in Western Europe. And that would be an understatement.

These two false claims resulted in the banishment of all Jews from England in 1290; they wouldn’t return for 400 years. The Jews were also expelled from France.

During this horrific era, the work of Jewish religious leaders became ever more valuable. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was widely sought for religious and practical advice, not only from Jews where he lived and served, but from all over the world. Says Ms. Bildersee: “All the queries as to right and wrong, the problems of ethics and morality, the inquiries concerning the interpretation of the Sacred Word came to the rabbi of Rothenburg…. The subjects on which he passed judgment touched every phase of contemporary life, - liturgy and ritual, rights of property, civil and criminal law, domestic troubles, rules of commerce and finance.”

A very pressing question he found himself addressing was what Jews could do who were unable to pay their taxes and were imprisoned by the authorities. Although the community as a whole could pay the required sum for the freeing of their co-religionists, Rabbi Meir told them, freed Jews would owe the community that money, for the good of the community. The rabbi, who was called, in appreciation of his services, “Light of the Exile,” was later arrested on a trumped-up charge in Lombardy. He forbade his friends from trying to pay the exorbitant ransom demanded for his release, and died in prison. But the authorities refused to release the rabbi’s body for 14 years, until Jews could finally pay the ransom!

Things went from bad to worse during the era of the Black Death of 1348-50. Although Jews and non-Jews alike contracted this extraordinarily contagious, lethal, and disgusting disease, a rumor spread that it had started with Jews poisoning the wells. In the persecution that followed, Jews were burned to death or committed mass suicide. (Thousands were massacred and thousands more fled to sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe.)

Although Jews weren’t expelled from Germany, their lives became rather unbearable during this time and would be so for quite a while thereafter. There were the usual burnings, mass murders, and drownings; occasionally, heroic, non-Jewish Germans stepped in to sacrifice themselves in place of Jews. Many German Jews left for Poland, which was a relatively safe place for Jews then. But those remaining behind were financially crushed by ever harsher taxes. Jews were excluded from the handicrafts, but permitted to engage in “trade.” Eventually, they were prohibited from trade, too, and the only livelihoods left them were peddling and money-lending.

They Didn’t Expect the Spanish Inquisition

Jewish living conditions in Spain deteriorated. In the 15th century, priests stirred up their parishioners against Jews, many of whom had amassed wealth and power in Spain. Spanish Jews were required to convert to Christianity or face death. Those who converted became known as Maranos; they often continued to practice Judaism in secret, or tried to. By the time of the Inquisition later in the century, Jews’ Christian neighbors were enlisted to spy on them: “If a Christian noticed that his neighbors put on fresh garments on Saturday [the Jewish Sabbath], or changed their table linen on that day, or called their children by Jewish names, or blessed their children without making the sign of the cross, then it was his duty to denounce them at once to the Inquisition.” Men, women, and children were all subject to being denounced, placed on trial, and tortured, burned alive, or otherwise condemned to death, the latter of which became a town spectacle.

Bildersee makes a point of recognizing that Spanish Christians were often in “violent opposition” to the Inquisition, and that many Spaniards sympathetic to the Inquisition were motivated by sincere religious principles, as were many Christians who participated in the Crusades. But these facts didn’t make the impact of the Inquisition and the Crusades any less terrible.

Fourteen-ninety-two was the year that Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain. For Jews, emigrating from Spain could be just as bad as staying. They had to leave their wealth and possessions behind. Many were sold into slavery, or murdered as they left the country, or thrown overboard from departing boats. The author points out that Jews had been financiers of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, and that the most prominent map-maker in Spain, whose maps Columbus used, was Jewish. Even many members of Columbus’s crew were Jewish, given that enlisting on a voyage of exploration was a way of escaping Spain. But regardless of contributions by Spanish Jews to Spain’s life and history, they could no longer legally reside in the country of their birth.

Italy, parts of which were controlled by Spain, was a place of refuge, but the early 16th century saw the influence of the Inquisition, and laws were enacted forbidding interaction between Jews and Christians. One of the earliest ghettos was established in Venice in 1516. Overcrowding was the norm. In one such ghetto, 4,000 people were squeezed into only 190 dwellings.

Enter Jewish Mysticism

Many Spanish Jews, including distinguished scholars and benefactors such as Joseph Nasi and Joseph ben Ephraim Caro, ended up in Turkey and rose to prominence there. Isaac Luria, on the other hand, who was born during the early 16th century in Jerusalem to a family “driven from its native land” of Germany, became a new sort of leading Jewish scholar, one whose main subject of study was the Cabala, or Jewish mysticism. To put it simply, his “complete absorption in meditation upon the holy mysteries” led him to the rather hippy-ish conclusion that anger was the root of all evil, and that love was the answer: “Love was one of the conditions which he prescribed for perfect holiness, ‘love of all creatures, including non-Jews’.” Luria advised against killing any animal, not even a worm. To him, prayer led to “new Divine light and a new outflow of Divine mercy.”

As Bildersee relates, Cabala was also the favorite branch of study for Sabbatai Zevi, one of a number of “false messiahs” of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Zevi was, for many Jews, just whom they needed during the varied persecutions of Christian Europe. From the Book of Isaiah, they drew the idea that their sorrows were a kind of “purification,” in which they “… would become worthy of their mission – to be a light to the Gentiles and a blessing to the world, the Suffering Servant through whom the salvation of the world should come.” Even after Zevi, to use modern parlance, had “jumped the shark,” when his attempted wresting of control of Constantinople from the Sultan failed and Zevi turned to Islam, some Jews still believed in him. But the Jews as a people never lost hope that the Messiah would someday come.

Holland and Jews: Perfect Together

The coming of the Messiah would eventually become the favorite topic of Spanish-Jewish scholar and leader Manasseh ben Israel, whose family had fled Spain for Holland, where Jews found they could openly practice their religion without persecution. Holland and Jews (of both well-to-do Spanish-Portuguese origin and the poor who had fled the ghettos) got along so well together, including economically, that kings in other places, such as Denmark, Modena, and Savoy, wondered about welcoming Jews to their kingdoms. The rabbi was a prolific writer; even Christian scholars passing through Amsterdam made a point of visiting him. He was a friend of Rembrandt, who painted a portrait of him, making him look just like the day’s typical Dutchman in his broad, black hat and wide, white collar.

Ben Israel believed that, before the Messiah could come, three preconditions had to be met. First, the lost tribes of Israel were to be found and reunited with the Jews. Jewish travelers seemed to think that the lost tribes had ended up in South America, Tartary, and China, says Bildersee. Second, Jews would have to experience a huge amount of punishment; that was easy, they’d been cooperating with that requirement for quite some time already. Third, the Jewish diaspora had to expand to all corners of the planet. To this end, ben Israel hoped to get Jews readmitted to England. He advocated to Oliver Cromwell and other English leaders their return, but even though he engendered much interest, he also stirred up old animosities, such as fear of economic competition and the Blood Libel. Although the English never officially welcomed back the Jews, the barriers were informally broken and, within 10 years, a large, Jewish community had grown up in London.

Baruch Spinoza is Excommunicated

Next, Bildersee turns to two Jewish thinkers who, in Holland, were excommunicated from Judaism. One such thinker was Uriel da Costa, a Marano, who, in desiring a return to the faith of his ancestors, chafed at all the rules for daily living found in the Talmud. He loudly complained that Jews were devoted to the body at the expense of the soul, and that Jews did not believe in the soul’s immortality. Dutch Jews were horrified at this public criticism; not only did they disagree with his representations of Judaism, but they also feared that Christians might take offense from some of da Costa’s pronouncements. Bildersee says that excommunication was an idea that Jews borrowed from their Christian persecutors during the Inquisition. Thus, they excommunicated da Costa three times. (A glutton for punishment, he kept pleading to be taken back.) Da Costa became an enemy of Judaism and authored hostile, anti-Jewish works.

The more prominent Jew to be excommunicated was Baruch Spinoza, whose family had also fled from Spain to Holland, where Spinoza was born in 1632. His problem, as an adult scholar, was his very logical mind that led him to believe that the “reasoning power of man” must govern one’s beliefs. Explains the author: “His ardent desire for truth in all things, at all cost, led him to apply this standard to religion, to the Judaism of his day.” While Spinoza had been a student of Manasseh ben Israel and studied the writings of Maimonides, he also was devoted to secular subjects like “classic antiquity,” as well as math, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and medicine. He was familiar with Descartes. These interests didn’t necessarily conflict with Judaism, but his questioning mind led him to teach non-religious reasoning to young people, worrying the Jews tremendously. And what if Christian authorities learned of his adherence to logic to the exclusion of all else, which also conflicted with Christianity?

So his fellow Jews excommunicated him, and they arranged with the authorities to have him banished from Amsterdam. Thus, Spinoza lived apart from Jews, but continued his studies and writings while eking out a living as a lens grinder. He was recognized as a great thinker, but not a great thinker within the bounds of Judaism.

The Emancipation of the Western European Jew

Bildersee concludes her book with a lengthy chapter on Moses Mendelssohn, born in the Germany of 1729. At the time, the only places of relative calm for Jews were Holland and England. Germany was particularly bad:

…[Jews were] hooted at and stoned in the streets, hemmed in by the walls of the ghetto, excluded from agriculture, the trades, and the professions, barred from universities, denied public office, forced into mean occupations.

All this persecution left its mark on the mind and soul. With no means to defend himself against the overwhelming numbers of his oppressors, the Jew bowed his head and slunk in the shadows; in obscurity he avoided unnecessary risk.

The author says that, in Jews being denied free intercourse with their Christian neighbors, they “… came to find their own resources all satisfying. They no longer wished to share the thoughts of a civilization which they beheld at its worst, - in its violent persecutions and its cramping, crippling, maddening restrictions.”

Mendelssohn came to be instrumental in the emancipation of the Western European Jew (Eastern Europe had its own, unique set of problems, not addressed in Post-Biblical History), although the fact that this was the Age of Enlightenment and earth-shaking revolutions were in the offing probably played at least as vital a role. He started out humbly as a starving scholar who had followed his favorite teacher, Rabbi David Frankel, from his birthplace of Dessau to the ghetto of Berlin, where the rabbi had taken a new teaching job. Over time, Mendelssohn’s opportunities improved; he was self-taught in many secular areas of study, including the Latin, French, and German languages (Jews lived so apart from their Christian neighbors that they didn’t speak the local language).

When a young man, he met the “intellectual young Jews of Berlin,” with whom he discussed philosophy and literature. These new friends were his eventual connection with a non-Jew, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who was an enemy of bigotry, unlike many other non-Jews, and had no qualms associating with Jews. In fact, Lessing based his noted work, Nathan the Wise, on his friend Mendelssohn, who would become known amongst the non-Jewish literati. Mendelssohn even beat out a young Immanuel Kant for best essay on a question of metaphysics, as judged by the Berlin Academy. His work, Phaedon, or the Immortality of the Soul, says Bildersee, was translated into numerous languages and became a worldwide bestseller.

The young writer became an exemplar of his “race” in Germany and used this status to advocate on behalf of oppressed Jews in other countries by recruiting friendly non-Jews to the cause. One such recruit was a Prussian leader, Christian Wilhelm Dohm, who wrote, Upon the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews (1781). Amelioration argued in favor of “equal rights” for Jews in earning a livelihood and the free exercise of their religion. This work seems to have led to the enactment by Emperor Joseph of Austria of laws allowing Jews to “learn handicrafts, arts and sciences, and, under certain restrictions, to follow agriculture.”

Mendelssohn was able to answer a backlash of antisemitism by arranging for the German translation of Manasseh ben Israel’s work, Vindiciae Judaeorum, and writing a preface pleading for tolerance, freedom of thought, and legal equality. He wrote his own work, Jerusalem or Upon Ecclesiastical Power and Judaism, in which he advocated for the separation of Church and State and opposed excommunication in the case of either Christians or Jews. Soon, the non-Jewish, French leader, Count Mirabeau, followed, with Upon Mendelssohn and the Political Reform of the Jews (1787).

The walls of the ghettos were crumbling, says Bildersee. Mendelssohn encouraged his fellow Jews to learn German by translating the Torah into the German language, and included with this translation Hebrew commentary summarizing the works of great Jewish scholars of the past. This piqued the interest of German Jews in both the German language and the “old classic Hebrew.” Since the increasingly emancipated Jews of Germany also needed a general education, Mendelssohn established a German-Jewish school in Berlin that taught not only the Bible and the Talmud, but also modern languages and a “complete secular course of study.”

Bildersee Ignores Recent Jewish History

The author in 1918 concludes her survey of Jewish history with the end of the 1700s. There is no mention of any of the events of the 19th or early 20th centuries, not the conviction (and later exoneration) of the French-Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus on trumped-up charges of treason, and certainly not the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe. Nor does she acknowledge the momentous establishment of the modern Zionist movement by the secular, Austrian Jew, Theodor Herzl, who argued in The Jewish State (1896) that the real answer to persistent antisemitism was the creation of a homeland for Jews.

Instead, Bildersee concludes with a peculiarly unrealistic optimism:

The Jews of to-day live the Jewish life in the modern world, not as outcasts in the hemmed-in world of the ghetto, not as aliens in lands of exile, but, for the most part, as free citizens of free countries…. The story of Jewish life and thought from his [Mendelssohn’s] day to ours is a record of attempts to work out the great problem…. [Now, the]… interpretation of ages of persecution and restriction merges into the interpretation of an age of freedom and enlightenment.


Missing from Post-Biblical History is any mention of the great Ashkenazi Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, where, in fact, most European Jews lived and from whence most American Jews can trace their ancestry. Also missing is any reference to the Central European birth of the post-Biblical, national tongue, if you will, a thousand years ago. This was Yiddish, spoken primarily by Ashkenazi Jews, as distinguished from the Sephardic Jews of North Africa, Spain, Portugal, and parts of Western Europe.
was a mixture of various languages, particularly Middle High German, Romance and Slavic tongues, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the language of Jesus) that sort of linguistically traced the movements of Jewish populations over the centuries. Nor does Bildersee acknowledge the Yiddish theater or the Yiddish literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I suppose that if Bildersee had included the things I’ve indicated that she left out, the book would have been twice as long and, admittedly, would have dramatically departed from her intention of portraying the development of Judaism through a study of the chief Jewish scholars of the ages, written in a student-friendly way. Even so, a postscript referring to some of what she left out would still have been welcome, and made her book seem a little less artificially limited in scope.

To this day, the greatest Yiddish literature, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is recognized as coming from the pen of Solomon Rabinovich, whose pen name was Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be unto you”). If you don’t think you’re familiar with any of his work, the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is the best popular example of Aleichem’s storytelling.

It’s time for another disclaimer: Sholem Aleichem’s first name has been variously spelled as Sholom and Shalom. (In fact, his real last name has also been spelled Rabinovitz.) But, for consistency’s sake, I will spell the first half of his pseudonym as Sholem except when referring to or quoting from a publication using a spelling variant.

Aleichem’s work is filled with humor, poignancy, and affection for the people from whom he was somewhat divorced, since he lived a well-to-do, urban existence, far away from the poor, Jewish shtetl (village) of the Pale of Settlement to which, with few exceptions, Jews of the Russian empire were restricted, as I have said.

I recommend reading Selected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, with a loving introduction by the late writer, Alfred Kazin. It was published in 1956 as a part of Random House’s Modern Library series. Kazin writes:

It is this kind of European, seasoned, familiar pleasure in the national circle of one’s own people, that lies behind Sholom Aleichem’s stories. But what kind of enjoyment can these people derive from being Jews, since they are incessantly harassed by the Russian government, and are surrounded by peasants who are usually anti-Semitic and can easily be goaded, with the help of the usual encouragement from the government itself and a lot of vodka, into making pogroms?.... The answer is that one enjoys being a member of a people because one shares in the feast of their common experience.

This is the fabled strength of “the old country,” which deprived Jews of Eastern Europe of every decency that we take for granted, but allowed them to feast unendingly on their own tradition – and even to enjoy, as an unconscious work of art, their projection of their fiercely cherished identity.

In this milieu, a story like “A Country Passover” is surprisingly benign in tone, even if it cleverly focuses on the Blood Libel without actually referring to it by name, or identifying exactly what it alleges. In this story, two boys, Jewish Feitel and non-Jewish Pedka, are best friends who do everything together and don’t understand their respective parents’ anxiety about the boys’ friendship, especially around Passover time. On the day of the first night of Passover, all of the matzos have been baked for the eight days of the holiday. The chums do their usual countryside exploring, which makes them late reaching home, to the consternation of parents, clerk, mayor, constable, sheriff, and inspector. Feitel’s parents “…stood in the middle of the crowd explaining, defending themselves, making all sorts of motions with their hands.” Both boys are angrily scolded and slapped by their fathers in their respective houses. Feitel’s mother says to his father: “Ah, if Pesach [Passover] were only over already. I hope it goes by without trouble. For my part it could have gone by before it started.”

After his punishment, non-Jewish Pedka listens to his mother talk with the other “peasant women”:

Such queer stories they told! There was one about a child who had been lured into a cellar by some Jews on the eve of Passover. They kept him there a day and a night and were just about to begin torturing him when people heard the screams of the child, came running from all directions, and rescued him. His body had already been pierced on four sides in the sign of the cross. The woman who told the story was a heavy, red-faced, blustering creature in a wide headdress. The other women, in their brightly colored kerchiefs, stood around her in a circle listening to the story, shaking their heads and crossing themselves. “Poor child,” they said, “Poor little thing.” And some of the women looked at him – at Pedka. And Pedka couldn’t understand why they looked at him so strangely and what the story had to do with him and with Feitel.

Pedka is lucky that his parents do not believe in the Blood Libel – or at least it seems they don’t. Happily, the day after the boys frightened their parents and the village by being late coming home, the fear is gone:

“Well?” Feitel heard his father say joyfully to his mother the morning after Passover, as though some great good fortune had come to him. “You were afraid, just like a woman. Our Passover is gone, their Passover is gone, and nothing has happened.”

“God be thanked,” his mother answered….

Feitel’s father has apparently forgotten how worried he was just a day earlier, when the village was in a panic over the missing boys.

In the documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011), although those who are interviewed try to keep a focus on the folksy humor of Aleichem’s tales, darkness definitely overtakes laughing. There is plenty about the pogroms that left Jewish villages in ruins and littered with dead bodies. Photos provide the evidence in the film, if anyone is skeptical, about the impact of these murderous riots. The viewers see what it must have been like during the Crusades or the Inquisition and how this violence presaged the Holocaust. There are the charred remains of loved ones, and rows of the dead. A pile of corpses is topped by the body of a little girl still in her dress; her last indignity is the very visible evidence in the picture that her underwear is missing.

Though of a privileged background, notes the film, Sholem Aleichem and his family were not immune to the terror of the pogrom. In 1906, they temporarily fled their Kiev apartment for a fortress of a hotel in the city to escape anti-Jewish rioting. It clanged and crashed and roared for three days outside, as they hid, trembling. (This was just one of hundreds of pogroms encouraged by the authorities throughout the Russian empire; they occurred in the wake of a failed anti-czarist revolutionary attempt.) The incident prompted them to leave the country; Aleichem ended up in New York, which he never really liked. He thought, we are told, that America was changing Jewish culture for the worse. Aleichem longed to return to the unchanged people for whom he had so much affection, which he did do, for a time, touring the Pale and performing public readings. But he ended up returning to New York and, in 1916, dying a Jewish hero’s death. Hundreds of thousands of Jews took to New York streets to honor him.

A fascinating pictorial survey of life in and near the Pale of Settlement during and just after Sholem Aleichem’s life and death is Yiddishland, with essays and photo captions by Gerard Silvain & Henri Minczeles. One sees Jews in every aspect of their lives; at the market, at work, in a couple of major towns (Vilnius in Lithuania and Lodz in Poland), celebrating holidays, at school, in the hospital, at the cemetery, in politics, at the Yiddish theater and, yes, after anti-Jewish massacres. Pogroms continued through and after World War One. One heartbreaking scene caught on camera is of a row of dead, Jewish children killed in a 1915 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine. But even pogroms couldn’t destroy the Yiddish-speaking population of Eastern Europe. Genocide did, as the Yiddishland editors indicate. In just a few, short years, Eastern European Jewry was, for all practical purposes, erased from the Earth, as if they had never existed. We do have plenty of literary, cultural, and physical evidence of “Yiddishland”; artifacts have been kept or recovered, but it’s no longer a place.

Observed one interviewee in Laughing in the Darkness, “America has been good to the Jews.” This is true, even if America hasn’t been so “good” to certain other minority groups, but America is still evolving, striving (one hopes) to do better. And the Jewish experience in America has not been without problems; non-Jewish America, too, has had to grow out of its antisemitic feelings and practices.

Informally, Jews were excluded from certain parts of corporate America and from country clubs, and the numbers of those admitted to some of the best universities was limited. The Ku Klux Klan included Jews among the people they targeted. Even in New York City, which the editors of Yiddishland note had become the “largest Yiddish center in the world” at the turn of the last century, antisemitism took a toll. During the observance of the Jewish New Year in October 1905, the New York Evening Post reported:

The … more than congested condition of the East Side streets caused by this great outpouring of worshipers made them almost impassable. It was during this part of the observance of the Jewish ritual that the Jew baiting occurred. Most of the trouble took place at Pike’s Slip where members of the Cherry Hill gang pulled the beards of the worshipers and in other ways maltreated them. Other ruffians from … the Delancey Street approach to the Williamsburg Bridge pelted the men, women, and children with stones. Several of them were injured. There were several fist fights, and several of the policemen who were on duty refused to make arrests when appealed to.

This article appears in one of my most treasured books, Portal to America: The Lower East Side 1870-1925 (1967), edited by Allon Schoener, which photographically and through reproduced articles from the New York press depicts life for immigrants – with a focus on Jewish newcomers – on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My grandparents came through Ellis Island and a number of them first lived on the Lower East Side.

When Louis Armstrong, one of my favorite musicians, was a boy in New Orleans, he worked for a Russian-Jewish, immigrant family, the Karnofskys, helping them sell scraps. They fed him dinner, made it possible for him to buy a cornet, and encouraged him to play and sing. Their loving treatment of him made a huge impression. And he noticed how non-Jewish New Orleans residents treated the Karnofskys, as he related in Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (1999), edited by Thomas Brothers: “I was only Seven years old but I could see the ungodly treatment that the White folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” And: “But the Jewish people in those early days was having problems of their own – Along with hard times from the other white folks nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race. And they took advantage of every chance they had to prove it.” (Note: the italics and capitalizations in Armstrong’s reminiscences are his.)

The most tragic case of antisemitism recorded in America resulted from a kind of Blood Libel. Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia, where he superintended a pencil factory, was convicted in 1913 and sentenced to death for the murder and mutilation of a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory. When, in 1915, the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison, enraged vigilantes decided to impose the death penalty themselves, kidnapped him from his prison cell, and hung him from a tree in Marietta where he died.

It is generally believed today that Frank was an innocent victim of antisemitism, and that an African-American janitor who worked at the factory and was the main witness against Frank at trial actually committed the crime. The lynching led to the triumphant resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and the founding of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

But Leo Frank remains the only Jew to have been lynched in the United States. Since that incident, the position of Jews in American life has steadily improved over time. Certainly, Adele Bildersee’s career as a New York educator was evidence of the promise that lay ahead for Jews in the United States. Ninety-eight years later, one can honestly say that, overall, “America has been good to the Jews.”

America has a way to go still, given the bigotry openly expressed by our President-Elect against almost every minority group out there, and that one of his chief advisers has put out antisemitic rubbish. Many of our President-Elect’s supporters, too, whether white supremacists or relatively unaffiliated but bigoted individuals, have been open in their public expressions lately, given the lack of restraint of the man they voted for and those he surrounds himself with. It’s an unsettling time. One hopes that today’s poisonous political rhetoric is short-lived. When the U.S. is racially, ethnically, and religiously inclusive, it’s better for Jews, as well as African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and, frankly, everyone.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved

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By Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Elton John has described the 1980s as his personal nadir. He has freely admitted that his abuse of drugs and alcohol, unsafe sex with other men, and release of some uncharacteristically subpar recordings, all contributed to this low point in his life. It wasn’t until 1990 that he finally sought help for his addictions and stepped on the path to recovery. But thirty years ago, long before he entered rehab, his life seemed to jerk from crisis to crisis. One such crisis spanned the final two months of 1986, and almost concluded with an end to Elton’s career. The following has been adapted from His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal (Billboard Books, 2001).

Things were pleasant enough in mid-October. Elton presided over the unveiling of the Watford Football Club’s new grandstand in suburban London, largely paid for with his concert proceeds, and proudly watched the first game played in the pristine structure. "When he held his hands above his head in a gesture of welcome, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause," observed one reporter. "[A]mong the muffled and capped leaders of Watford, for whom popular music probably ends with Tom Jones, this sort of rapture is astonishing. It is rather like John the Baptist getting a standing ovation in a betting shop."

The release of his new album, Leather Jackets, and its first single, "Heartache All Over The World," wasn’t as glorious. “Heartache” was among his worst charting singles in the UK and US, failing to reach the Top 40 in either place.

The weak showing of the album was as disconcerting. A hodgepodge of terrible songs with very few good ones, it remains possibly his most reviled album of new material among fans. The Philadelphia Inquirer gave the album one star out of four, complaining that "this is the worst album he's ever recorded."

On his US tour that fall, Elton’s voice had been giving out. It got to the point where he’d begun apologizing for his voice and encouraging fans to ask for their money back.

Despite all of this, Elton continued on like the trouper he was, arriving in Sydney, Australia, in late October 1986 in anticipation of the Tour De Force, his 27-date tour with the band and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. His first stop was Harry's Cafe de Wheels in the suburb of Woolloomooloo, where he held a press conference dressed in dignified grey. Only his pink pony tail seemed out of place. Switching from his regular sunglasses to ones with the Qantas logo of leaping kangaroo on each lens, he munched on pie 'n' peas, drank beer, and answered questions. "I'm feeling really great about the tour," he said. "I'm so excited, I've got more energy than I've had for ages."

Why would Elton tour with the MSO? Nearly fifteen years earlier, the London Times had written of the pianist's February 1972 one-show stint with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, suggesting Elton didn’t need the orchestra because his "songs are basically natural and only need him to sing and play them...."

This was still true. But when rehearsals finally began at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, the union of the MSO's talents and Elton's perfectly constructed ballads and rock tunes proved monstrously moving.

Plans for this tour, sponsored by Qantas and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, had begun in 1984, at the suggestion of Elton’s Australian promoter. Agreeing that it was an interesting idea was easy; actually making it a pleasing reality was another. Elton didn’t want to do it unless he could be assured that the MSO would be properly amplified and sound as loud as the band. Record producer Gus Dudgeon, who would be along to serve as the orchestra’s sound engineer, investigated ways to "mike" the MSO, discovering a method by which each instrument could be individually amplified, with microphones as tiny as fingernails.

There were other hurdles. Former band member James Newton Howard, who had been busy scoring American movies like Wildcats and Tough Guys, adapted Paul Buckmaster's (and his own) arrangements to the potential of a full symphony orchestra, downplaying the cello Buckmaster had favored on the early albums. Some orchestra members were reluctant to do a rock tour. A few refused to participate. James, who also was to be the orchestral conductor, tried to assuage the musicians' fears come the Brisbane rehearsals: "I came out to meet them and let them know they weren't dealing with Ozzy Osbourne."

Principal Clarinetist Philip Miechel told a television reporter that he only agreed to participate because most members did. He resented the orchestra’s amplification, but figured the six-week tour would make a nice vacation. Although of Elton’s generation, he claimed he’d never heard Elton's music prior to rehearsals.

Other MSO members were excited. Harpist Huw Jones, in his early fifties, cited "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word" as his favorite Elton John song and professed to being "hypnotized by the beat" of the uptempo numbers. Significantly younger double bassist Michelle Picker remembered enthusiastically learning Elton's songs on piano as a girl of 12.

Elton eventually won over the skeptics. Principal Clarinetist Philip Green cheerily remarked when the tour was well underway that "Elton's sheer musical energy has overcome anyone's reservations."

After James had worked with the orchestra in Brisbane for a week, Elton arrived for rehearsals, disarmingly clothed in shorts, sneakers, sports jersey, and ball cap, his pink pony tail poking out of the back. "When we actually got together with Elton, it was one of the most emotional experiences in my life," said James. "Musically, it was the most satisfying moment in my life to have been involved with the orchestrations so long, and with Elton for so many years prior to that, and to really have that many components as a musician come together and work well was very gratifying."

Elton agreed. He tearfully declared after his first day of rehearsals with the orchestra: "This has been the greatest day of my life." His remaining rehearsal days were long. The MSO practiced ten hours a day; Elton, thirteen. The band joined later, to review the work it would do with and without the MSO. (The show’s first segment was to be a twelve-song rock and roll set. Following an intermission, the orchestra would join the band for eighteen songs.)

The last rehearsal before opening night on November 5 in Brisbane was, for Elton, a kind of dress rehearsal. He was seen by the press either seated, solemnly playing his Steinway, or trudging about, contemplating his music, clothed in blue shorts, a koala sweatshirt, and a fuzzy blue and grey shark cap with inquisitive eyes and pearly, white teeth. Reporters were treated to a last run-through of "The King Must Die." Within a few hours, the first of three shows in Brisbane would take place.

Elton was mindful of the need for mental acuity. Entourage member Bob Stacey, in charge of procuring the musician's backstage refreshments, said, "At the moment, the favorite drink is Diet Coca-Cola without a doubt – and a cup of tea. In the old days it was gin, vodka or scotch. Nowadays our attitude is: we're older and wiser and we've got to last the tour!" His sobriety led to some of the most dazzling performances of his career, despite the raspiness of his voice. The shows were also physically taxing. He was the only one among the 102 musicians who had to play and sing steadily for nearly three hours every evening.

The first half of the lively show was an abbreviated version of the concert British, European, and American fans had enjoyed during the past year, with plenty of hits. During the initial ninety minutes, Elton was at least as ridiculously dressed as he had been in America a month or two earlier, when he had revived his 1970s penchant for outrageous clothes. The second, orchestrated half of the show, in which his appearance metamorphosed into a reasonable facsimile of Mozart, complete with beauty mark on his right cheek, showcased many songs forgotten over the years. There were six from his first US release, Elton John, two from Madman Across The Water, and two from his 1976 LP, Blue Moves. More recent albums were represented, too, including The Fox, Too Low For Zero and even the mostly awful Leather Jackets. Two songs, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me" and "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," received symphonic treatment for the first time.

Elton appeared to fourteen thousand Brisbane fans during the first half of opening night dressed in what was described as a "pink, feathery mohawk hairdo, pink glasses, diamond tear-drop earrings and diamante-studded tails." Later, wearing one of several Amadeus get-ups made especially for the tour, "Elton and orchestra blended perfectly to produce an exciting mix of rock and classical music which fired the enthusiasm of fans to new heights," observed TV Week.

This was the night relations between Elton and his friend, Australian TV personality and pop columnist “Molly” Meldrum, became strained. Molly said Elton "summoned" him backstage after the show to relate his opinion of the concert. Meldrum responded that the first half needed more rockers, including "Crocodile Rock," and the second half should have a couple of instrumentals, like "Song For Guy" and "Funeral For A Friend." Elton didn’t welcome the advice. Molly later admitted that, when Elton dismissed his comments, "I blew my top." The scene became fodder for the tabloids:

"Furious Elton Snubs Critic Molly"

"Molly's Advice Hits Sour Note With Rocker Elt"

It got worse:

"'Dry Out': Elton Tells Molly"

The next stop was Melbourne, home of the MSO, for an eight-night stand. On November 10, the first night, Elton announced to concertgoers: "There's no way I'm going to do 'Crocodile Rock' – even if Molly is in the audience!" For the rock segment, he wore a green mohawk, winged Alain Mikli spectacles, and strangely specked tails.

One reviewer noticed the growing delight of "Bennie And The Jets" (writing of "a most impressive – and highly amusing – piano solo"), and how the MSO enjoyed itself during the second half. "When the 88 musicians received a thunderous ovation from their home crowd, their faces showed glee," read the review. "And their acknowledgment of Elton's performance was just as hearty as Elton's was of theirs."

If some MSO members were initially reluctant to do this tour, they no longer regretted it. They realized they had a new audience in young people. Elton's professionalism helped, as did his generosity. Before the tour started, he presented a bottle of Moet & Chandon French champagne to every musician. Attached to each bottle was a message: "Here's to a great tour."

One night in Melbourne, Elton headed out to a "business meeting" at the Hilton Hotel. He just happened to be wearing a taffeta tuxedo, boater, bow tie, conservative glasses, and possibly thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. Upon entering the hotel's Decanter Room, he found the glare of television cameras and beaming MSO members. The MSO Chairman of the Board, Professor Peter Dennison, presented him with a plaque, which stated in part: "By public acclaim and acclaim of the critics, your Tour de Force has been a triumphant success and we are deeply proud to have been involved." The plaque memorialized the pianist's honorary MSO life membership, the first such honor bestowed on any musician, let alone a rock star.

Elton acted like the average person who had just won the lottery, fists in the air, face oozing delight. "There's no need for a consolidation between me and the orchestra, it is already there," he announced (having earlier remarked to an assistant, "Lucky I got dressed up"). "But it's just confirmation of what a wonderful time we're all having together." He vowed the tour would forever impact his music, observing mischievously: "I've never had such a love affair without ever actually going to bed with anybody."

Some in the classical community were incensed. Wrote The (Australian) Sun's music critic Tony Gould, "Artistically, it's rather childish. It's almost as if Elton John is one of the great musicians of the 20th century, which he certainly is not." None of the esteemed classical musicians who had appeared with the MSO, like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, received such an honor, Gould complained. Newspaper readers called the award "phony." An "insult."

They missed the point. Elton was spotlighting the MSO and other symphony orchestras, and enlightening rock fans. Also, the MSO members liked and admired him. Among those coming to his defense was Molly Meldrum. The two had reconciled at a "barbie." In a column, Molly asserted that his friend's show improved with each night. He quoted from Gould's protestations, then wrote, "Well, my dear man, I don't know if you went to any of the concerts. If you did you could not accuse Elton of merely 'singing pop songs and playing pop piano'.

"What he and the MSO have been doing is bridging a gap that I, and many others, thought would be impossible to cross."

Once the long residency in Melbourne had ended, the MSO's newest member turned his sights to South Australia and Adelaide's Football Park. This was the only show at an outdoor venue, and boasted the largest crowd of the tour, twenty thousand. As he took his seat for the first number, "One Horse Town," people got an eyeful – silver lurex tails and cape, dark sunglasses with a tiny fan accenting each lens, and Tina Turner wig. Some concertgoers wore their own oversized glasses. Wrote a reviewer: "The sheer power and majesty of 100 musicians on stage bringing the diminutive Englishman's endearing melodies to life was sensational and at times overwhelming." The love fest was set to continue on the far side of the continent – Western Australia and the city of Perth – where three concerts were scheduled.

But on Thursday, November 27, twenty minutes after showtime, fans were startled to hear over the Public Address system that a "viral infection" would keep Elton from performing. Fifteen minutes earlier, an ear, nose and throat specialist had examined his throat and decreed that he had better not sing.

This concert was ultimately canceled; Elton's doctor advised him to rest his voice for the four days before the last – and lengthiest – leg of the tour began on Monday in Sydney.

The odds were that every concert review would not be stellar, and these caught up with Elton on December 1, the night of the first Sydney show. Appropriately named critic Lynden Barber disliked Elton's purported "return" to a style favored early in his career, a "white English hybrid of gospel and New Orleans piano-led R&B." "It was easy to overlook the fact that his voice rasped terribly ..., but less easy to feel sympathy for ...the stolid treatment dished out to songs like 'Benny [sic] And The Jets' and 'Rocket Man'," groused Barber. "The latter, in particular, was drawn out to self-indulgent extremes, the necessary sense of funk absent from John's piano technique. Hardly aided by poor sound, the whole band seemed bored...."

The next night saw a fuming Elton – disturbed by increasingly irksome voice problems that required the cancellation of a 32-date American tour early the following year – start the show in his rehearsal outfit of shorts, sports jersey, ball cap, and sneakers. He made a comment about the Barber review as he began "Rocket Man" and, in the middle of the song, abruptly exited the stage as the band played. An awkward intermission ensued, followed by his surprise reappearance onstage. The band, by now backstage, hurriedly caught up with him.

That was nothing compared to what happened on December 9. He was in the middle of introducing the MSO to the audience when he collapsed, face first. James and some stage hands rushed to lift him up. After drinking a glass of water, he resumed the show, as if nothing had happened. Rumors flew about his health. Publicist Patti Mostyn dismissed speculation of imminent disaster, saying that he had been feeling a "little tension" lately. "He has the constitution of an ox," she reassured the press. The following month the public learned that his vocal cords had endured episodes of spasmodic pain throughout the tour. One such episode caused this collapse.

The Sydney shows continued. The biggest night of the tour was also the last night, on Sunday, December 14, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation would be simulcasting the final show on television and radio across Australia and New Zealand. Elton didn’t admit it then, but it was the specialness of this tour that kept him going. "I'm gonna be very sad when this tour ends," he had said earlier. By the last night, he knew throat surgery was inevitable. It was too early to tell whether he had growths on his vocal cords, and whether they were cancerous. The tour’s end meant he would have to face the music, possibly very unpleasant music.

Molly Meldrum, a co-host of the telecast, was ready to interview band members and tour participants during a live pre-show segment. Blissfully unaware of the battle raging in Elton's mind, Molly was befuddled when, during the live pre-show that Sunday, the musician approached him (off camera) and announced that he wasn’t "going on." Elton started leaving the arena for his hotel room as Molly ran after him. "I tried to convince him that it would be unfair on the people who had paid for their tickets, the eight million viewers, and on the people who had spent two years trying to put the televised concert together," Molly recounted in his column days later. Elton was unconvinced. Molly rushed to tell the show's producer of this alarming development. If they had to, they could televise the previous night's concert, which was on tape. But Molly rightly observed that that would "hardly have been the same."

Elton came through. At showtime, concertgoers watched as Elton, dressed as flashy, furry forest creature, and his flexible band tore through the rock portion of the show. His voice, hopelessly hoarse at the beginning, loosened up as the show progressed. An innocent interpolation of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright?" in the middle of an extended version of “Rocket Man” provided the only glimpse of his worries. "Rocket Man ain't feelin' too good himself," he scratchily sang.

Throat pain didn’t keep him from a display of unorthodox virtuosity during "Bennie." Lowering his body onto the floor as he steadily rolled ragtime chords with his right hand, he rested on his left elbow with eyes shut, and yawned. But he couldn’t always keep the pain a secret. He struggled to sing "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues." At song’s end, he puffed his cheeks and blew through his mouth, relieved it was over.

His sense of humor was still intact. During his introduction of the band members, something backfired, sounding like a gunshot. He quickly fell, and as quickly stood up. "I knew Rod Stewart'd get in somewhere," he joked about his friendly rival.

The second half with orchestra began, as always, with "Sixty Years On." Elton made his entrance in a luminous get-up of white tails striped with light-reflecting silver, and a white powdered wig. The band members turned up gradually during later songs, most wearing stately, matching white suits. The gruffness of Elton's voice sometimes detracted from songs that required softness, like "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” or a sustained power, like "Slow Rivers." But on most, the MSO's full treatments – and Elton's playing – made up for his unbecoming singing. The first showstopper of the evening was "Take Me To The Pilot," which included buoyant piano work, reminiscent of his early 1970s shows, and a battle between band and orchestra built from a combination of the piano chord sequences heard on the original recording and James’ invigoratingly bombastic reworking of the arrangements.

Viewers could also delight in "Madman Across The Water." Elton's damaged voice helped convey the deranged nature of the "madman." His dissonant playing danced around the intentionally disturbed utterances of the MSO. But the evening's most dramatic moment was the performance of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." The orchestra played with Gone With The Wind-style melodrama. Elton took Bernie Taupin's lyrics to heart. "I'd just allow a fragment of your life to wander free," he sang, only fragments of his voice left. His eyes looked moist, for good reason. "I was crying," he said, years later. "My life was an utter disaster area."

The next song, "Candle In The Wind," would ensure that the sun didn’t go down on him. A brief recess was afforded the band and the MSO as Elton performed the song solo, accompanied only by the synthesizer sounds triggered by his piano’s MIDI hook-up. This version was more special than all the other solo versions he had played in the last year. His voice had cleared up a bit, allowing him to delicately project the song’s passion while retaining the vulnerability in its message, audible in his uncomfortable timbre. His piano rang like a chorus of church bells. The whole world would know this performance as a major hit single in late 1987.

During the encore, Elton dedicated "Your Song" to manager John Reid, and to Molly Meldrum, "for putting up with me today," and apologized to fans for canceling the last Perth concert. "I'll be back," he said. As the ballad finished, the orchestra hummed. Familiar strains sounded from behind James' baton. The audience grew increasingly excited as it recognized the beginning of a quite new "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." Elton leapt from his piano bench, motioning for those still seated to stand, just before Davey Johnstone launched into the song’s guitar opening. Confetti, streamers and, finally, balloons, fell on the band and the dancing audience. Elton's only musical obstacle now was an incessant supply of streamers floating onto his keyboard, forcing him to play with one hand as he brushed them from the keys with the other. At song’s end, he thanked everyone, including viewers in Australia and New Zealand. As the arena emptied, only the sound of popping balloons remained. The tour was over.

Elton hosted an end of tour party for four hundred people. He seemed in good spirits, noting he would be going to London for surgery but return to hear the MSO play its customary material. "I don't think any permanent damage has been done," he said of his voice. The subject turned to the rich musical experience that had just ended. He said he hoped he would remember it. On impulse he mimicked, in David Crosby-like American accent, imaginary veterans of Woodstock unable to remember the details of their own big event because they were high. Only Molly was in a bad mood.

A few days later, Meldrum purged his feelings in a column. Molly wrote that he had been speaking with a friend who was an Elvis Presley devotee, which reminded him of how isolated Presley became from the real world. “I'm not about to say that is what has happened to Elton. But … this could almost become the case. If he had not gone on stage on Sunday night, by the next day his whole career could have been in ruins.” He added that he had seen the tragic rock and roll deaths of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and others. “But I can't think of a friend in the business who is closer to me than Elton. That's why I worry.”

Elton’s erratic behavior during the tour may be mostly attributed to the stress of his voice problems, even though Meldrum seemed less than clear on this. His throat surgery in early 1987 was successful, but his period of recovery was long and, afterward, many fans complained that his falsetto was gone. As all of this transpired, Elton was in the middle of on-again, off-again, drinking and drugging. It would be a few more years before he recognized his substance abuse problems and committed himself to overcoming them. Since then, he has been a different man creatively, philanthropically, in his energy level, and with friends and family. His projects take him from strength to strength. Thirty years ago, however, it wasn’t at all evident that Elton would ever seek help or that his life and career would improve. In remembering the thirtieth anniversary of one of his most important, and moving, musical efforts, his Australian tour with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, we can also acknowledge his continued sobriety, which Elton has called the accomplishment of which he is most proud.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, All Rights Reserved.

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Washington Square and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

Recently, I trudged, annoyed but hopeful, through Henry James’s irritating novella, Washington Square, only to have my expectations of a tolerable ending dashed.

(SPOILER ALERT: This essay gives the whole plot away.)

According to the editor’s note in an unabridged Dover edition, James decided in February 1879 to base the plot on an anecdote told him by his friend, Fanny Kemble, which comes close to the synopsis of the story: “Mrs. Kemble’s brother, it seems, had courted a ‘dull, plain, common-place girl’ entirely because of the fortune she stood to inherit. He had abandoned her when her father threatened to disown her, but resumed his pursuit upon her father’s death. Mrs. Kemble … had advised the young woman ‘by no means to marry her brother.’”

Catherine Disappoints Her Father

In Washington Square, the “dull… girl” was Catherine, her father the brilliant Dr. Austin Sloper. Dr. Sloper was regarded as one of the best physicians in America by those within his social and professional circles and among the most popular men in New York, what with his wit, knowledge, and sophistication. He was also very lucky to have snagged one of the most coveted, Manhattan debutantes, Catherine Harrington, who, as it happened, came with a very large dowry – not that he cared, of course, since he “married for love.”

But bad things started happening early in their marriage. Their first child, a boy of “extraordinary promise,” as Dr. Sloper believed, died when barely out of toddlerhood. The next child was a girl, named Catherine after his wife, but, due to her gender, he immediately found her disappointing. Things got worse. His beautiful, young wife died just a week after giving birth to baby Catherine, and he lived the rest of his life under a “private censure” for failing to prevent these losses (that is, he blamed himself). But his social standing actually improved. The people around him found that “his misfortune made him more interesting, and even helped him to be the fashion.”

Dr. Sloper raised his daughter at their Washington Square, Manhattan, home without remarrying, although his sister, Lavinia Penniman, did come to live with them after her husband died young. Aunt Lavinia was charged with making a “clever” girl out of Catherine, especially since she lacked her mother’s beauty. Dr. Sloper did not actually think much of his sister’s or daughter’s intellect, probably because he did not respect the intelligence of women in general. His daughter admired, loved, and feared him, and always sought to please him. Nevertheless, he was unappreciative of her devotion and regarded her as “decidedly not clever,” though morally pure, as well as “affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.” But did she have a mind of her own, or dreams that were worth encouraging? No. (Sure, women were second-class citizens in the Victorian era – in fact, for most of recorded history – but Catherine’s father treated her with near-contempt.)

Enter Morris Townsend

Naturally, by the time shy Catherine turned eighteen, she was as susceptible to falling in love as any other young woman might have been. She attended a ball at a relative’s with Dr. Sloper and Aunt Lavinia, and it happened. A young man named Morris Townsend, brother to the betrothed of one of Catherine’s cousins, walked over to Catherine instantly upon seeing her and struck up a long conversation with her in which he did virtually all the talking. Later, they danced a polka. He also spoke with Lavinia for a while, but their only topic was supposedly her niece, Catherine.

Catherine was quickly smitten with Morris’s tall, slim form and handsome face. She was impressed with his manners and the care with which he addressed her needs and concerns.
From here it was all uphill – or downhill, depending upon your perspective. It wasn’t long before Morris visited the Slopers’ Washington Square home, first with his brother, then without, although Lavinia was always present. The problem with Lavinia, who was at least twice as old as her niece, was that she had her own romantic notions. As the author explained: “[S]he had a passion for little secrets and mysteries…. She would have liked to have a lover, and to correspond with him under an assumed name in letters left at a shop.”

Aunt Lavinia Sticks Her Nose In

It’s not that Lavinia tried to wrest Morris away from Catherine, or discourage their budding relationship. But she did meddle. Dr. Sloper, on the other hand, decided fairly quickly that he would not allow the romance to go forward; if the two youngsters were to marry, he would cut his daughter off from her inheritance – not the modest amount she was entitled to from her late mother, but the additional, very substantial, riches that he had earned as a physician.

What was Dr. Sloper’s concern? That Morris was only interested in Catherine’s money – ironically, it was probably the elder Catherine’s money that attracted Austin Sloper to her in the first place, despite what he told himself – and, as a designing man with no employment prospects, Morris was not to be trusted. There were warning signs. Morris, who was living with his sister and her children, had claimed that he was tutoring them, thus saving his sister the expense of sending his nieces and nephews to school. But, in fact, he was not tutoring them. And he had spent the entirety of his own small inheritance on a trip around the world. If the two married, he might be tempted to squander Catherine’s large inheritance, too.

From here, the story takes on the structure of an elaborate, but sloppy, board game, in which all of the main characters – but one – look to gain whatever they can from the controversy without thinking much, or at all, of the impact of their actions on the others. With the exception of Catherine, they all come off rather despicably.

Catherine’s Father Asks Around

Dr. Sloper hoped to find out some damning facts about Morris from Mrs. Montgomery, the young man’s sister with whom he lived. After he beat down her sense of dignity, and told her that he would feel great “moral satisfaction” if she could disparage Morris’s character, she finally cried, “Don’t let her marry him!” Those words gave the doctor the “moral satisfaction of which he had just spoken, and their value was the greater that they had evidently cost a pang to poor little Mrs. Montgomery’s family pride.” When Catherine told her father that she wished to see Morris again – but just once, for the present – he called her “an ungrateful, cruel child,” and when she began sobbing, he ignored her outstretched arms and shoved her out of his study.

Aunt Lavinia was excited at the prospect of being an intermediary between two lovers in an illicit romance: “Mrs. Penniman took too much satisfaction in the sentimental shadows of this little drama to have, for the moment, any great interest in dissipating them. She wished the plot to thicken….” She set up a meeting with Morris at a restaurant away from Washington Square and there suggested that he elope with Catherine. Lavinia tried to convince him that if he married Catherine without an expectation of her father’s fortune, Dr. Sloper would probably bestow it on the married couple, anyway, when he was satisfied that Morris was not actually in it for the money.

But Morris was in it for the money, and was tired of corresponding with Lavinia daily and having to satisfy her requests for meetings to discuss the state of his situation with Catherine: “He was in a state of irritation natural to a gentleman of fine parts who had been snubbed in a benevolent attempt to confer a distinction upon a young woman of inferior characteristics, and the insinuating sympathy of this somewhat dessicated matron appeared to offer him no practical relief.”

When Catherine did not react well to her aunt’s latest clandestine meeting with Morris, Lavinia, who was only satisfying her craving for intrigue even if she couldn’t admit it, snapped: “…I shall certainly never again take any step on your behalf; you are much too thankless.”

Catherine is the one sympathetic character in this story, even if one wished that she would defy her father and make demands on him for a change – although, had she done so, there might be less of a story to tell. As it is, she was a victim of everyone else’s selfish deviousness. Her father was especially culpable, responsible for her low sense of self-esteem, and cold to her most of the time, no matter how deferential she acted toward him. And he seemed to view his daughter’s relationship with Morris as a contest he, her father, must win – never mind how Catherine felt about it.

Getting Catherine to Forget Morris

As we have observed, Morris was mainly interested in taking advantage of a guileless, young woman. He may have had some affection for her, but that’s not what drove his conduct. And Lavinia viewed her role in this as a well-meaning participant in a dramatization of a romance novel. It wasn’t really real to Lavinia – just really fun, and kind of thrilling!

Dr. Sloper attempted to get his daughter’s mind off of Morris by taking her on what turned out to be a year-long sojourn of the world. But the trip had no effect. Unbeknownst to him, she had been corresponding with Morris regularly – with Aunt Lavinia’s assistance – and hoped to resume her relationship with him upon their return from abroad.

Unbeknownst to Catherine, while she and her father were away, Lavinia had continued her frequent visits with Morris. Upon returning to Washington Square, Dr. Sloper was as obstinate about Morris as ever, while Catherine patiently (as ever) waited to see if he might change his mind. Finally, during one of his secret meetings with Lavinia, Morris declared that he wanted to break up with her niece, ostensibly so he could embark on “something brilliant.” He asked Lavinia to smooth the way for the break up. Shockingly, in his presence, Lavinia wondered aloud whether this “something brilliant” might mean “another marriage” – that is, as she hinted strongly, her own marriage to Morris! It is unclear whether this idea had just occurred to her or whether it had been on her mind all along. Morris scoffed at Lavinia’s hint; she “felt disappointed and snubbed,” and never did facilitate Morris’s broaching of the subject of breaking up with Catherine. But he continued to see Catherine with an expectation that Lavinia would inform her about the impending change in their relationship.

They Break Up

After waiting weeks for Lavinia to come through, Morris finally fell back on one of the oldest devices in the annals of human relations, picking a fight with his fiancée to precipitate a split. This fight, in turn, led to a contretemps between Catherine and her aunt, who let it slip that a separation between the two youngsters had been “agreed upon.” At this late date, real anger welled up inside Catherine’s breast. They had made an agreement about her relationship without involving her! She verbally tore into her aunt, who deserved all of the rage Catherine could muster against her.

Decades went by. Catherine continued to live with her father and Aunt Lavinia, and never married. Her father was perturbed until his dying day about this; he didn’t understand that she had given up all thoughts – and all affection – for Morris Townsend and apparently had lost all taste for romance as well. Nevertheless, Dr. Sloper almost completely cut Catherine out of his will, on the off chance that she would realize his greatest fear and someday reunite with Morris.

Time passed. The author explains that Catherine “became an admirable old maid…. She regulated her days on a system of her own, interested herself in charitable institutions, asylums, hospitals and aid-societies; … and mingled freely in the usual gaieties of the town, and she became at last an inevitable figure at all respectable entertainments.”

But Lavinia couldn’t keep from trying once again, long after Dr. Sloper’s death, to reunite Catherine and Morris. Catherine got her revenge on them both by acting as uninterested as she actually was in resuming even a friendship with her now-divorced, middle-aged, pudgy, former suitor. In a sense, then, by thwarting her father’s expectations that she would marry someone (anyone, as long as it wasn’t Morris), and rejecting the little scheme that Lavinia and Morris had lately devised, Catherine defeated the blameworthy people in her life, and did it her way. This meant that her life never improved. It just continued, with no further acrimony.

The Poet Jeffrey Aspern

Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a novella that I read a couple of years ago, is shorter than Washington Square and worked better for me. Maybe this is because Aspern is not a story of romance – not principally, anyway – and there is no Catherine-like protagonist who allows the people closest to her to manipulate her. This doesn’t mean that there was no amoral trickster in Aspern. In fact, the protagonist, an unnamed literary critic whom we’ll call “Mr. L. C.,” was obsessed with obtaining the ancient love letters written by the celebrated, long-dead, poetic genius Jeffrey Aspern to the now-elderly and ailing Miss Juliana Bordereau. The old woman was American, but lived reclusively with her equally American niece, Miss Tina, in a gigantic but barely-furnished Venetian palazzo which they rented for very little money. Mr. L. C. decided that the only way to get a glimpse of the love letters would be for him to win the trust of the “Misses Bordereau.” What better way to do that than to appeal to their sense of poverty and rent some of their empty rooms? If all else failed, he would “make love to the niece.”

(ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT: I give away the entire plot in this one, too!)

A main attraction of Aspern is, of course, James’s eye for detail. As Mr. L. C. took a look around the palazzo, he found that it had a “gloomy grandeur, but owed its character almost all to its noble shape and to the fine architectural doors, as high as those of grand frontages which, leading into the various rooms, repeated themselves on either side at intervals. They were surmounted by old painted faded escutcheons, and here and there in the spaces between them hung brown pictures, which I noted as speciously bad, in battered and tarnished frames that were yet more desirable than the canvases themselves.”

Miss Tina Gets No Respect

More impressive than James’s eye for detail was his insightful portrayal of psychological intrigue, similar to that in Washington Square, in which, yet again, only one character comes off as sympathetic. Here, that would be Miss Tina. The elder Miss Bordereau, to whom Miss Tina was completely devoted, treated her niece with no respect, calling her “ignorant” (an opinion with which, when it came to money, Miss Tina embarrassedly agreed) and remarking that, although her niece had a “very good education when she was young…, she has learned nothing since.” Later, Miss Tina explained to Mr. L. C. that her aunt “takes care of me. She thinks that when I’m alone I shall be a great fool and shan’t know how to manage.”

(One suspects that Miss Tina was the out-of-wedlock daughter of the great Aspern and her ostensible aunt, given the concern of Miss Juliana for Miss Tina’s financial stability and the fact that some lawyer in New York sent Miss Tina a regular allowance for no apparent reason. But this suspicion is never confirmed.)

Mr. L. C. commenced his campaign to win the trust of the Misses Bordereau; he regularly had bouquets of flowers sent up to their quarters from the palazzo’s formerly neglected garden, the restoration of which he had arranged in a wise hiring decision. After three months of little interaction, Mr. L. C. and Miss Tina found themselves in the rehabilitated garden at the same time; he revealed that the flowers he had been sending up were for Miss Tina, too, not just for her aunt. He had won the younger Miss Bordereau’s trust. Thus, her need for companionship spurred her to pour out private things about her life with her aunt in Venice, and about her aunt’s past. Mr. L. C. described the lonely and innocent Miss Tina as not turning away when embarrassed. Instead, she “came closer, as it were, with a deprecating, clinging appeal to be spared, to be protected…. From the moment you were kind to her she depended on you absolutely….” It was only a matter of time before she began talking to Mr. L. C. about the Aspern papers. Eventually, he confided that he’d like to see or have them. By then, he had become quite the companion to Miss Tina, taking her out to some of the romantic corners of Venice and often meeting her in the palazzo’s garden. When Miss Juliana’s health took a turn for the worse, Miss Tina boldly searched for the papers and told Mr. L. C. that she had done so, for him, but that they were not where she thought they were.

Mr. L. C. Attempts to Purloin the Letters

Then came the climax, when Mr. L. C. thought the elderly Miss Bordereau was asleep and he snuck into the unexpectedly open quarters of the Misses Bordereau to find the papers on his own. Somewhat predictably, Miss Juliana awakened and caught him in the act, calling him a “publishing scoundrel,” and collapsing into the suddenly present arms of Miss Tina.

Shocked and fearful, Mr. L. C. temporarily fled Venice. When he returned, he learned of the death of Miss Juliana, and found that her niece was willing to see him. But his selfishness didn’t lay dormant for long. He worried to himself that Miss Tina would believe that “there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I shouldn’t somehow look after her.”

He couldn’t help but bring up the papers, which she admitted she now had in her possession; she had finally learned where her aunt kept them. But Miss Tina couldn’t just give them to Mr. L. C. There was a condition that she hoped he would satisfy. She meekly uttered some of her idea: “If you weren’t a stranger. Then it would be the same for you as for me. Anything that’s mine would be yours, and you could do what you like. I shouldn’t be able to prevent you – and you’d have no responsibility.”

Mr. L. C. realized she meant marriage. Again, he fled in cowardice. When he returned the following day, belatedly thinking that he would be willing to pay such a price for possession of the papers, it was too late. Miss Tina, grief-stricken over the loss of her aunt and of Mr. L. C., had burned every last letter, one at a time. While posterity didn’t deserve this, Mr. L. C. certainly did. Yet the Aspern ending is more satisfying than that for Washington Square; at least the jerk here experienced a real sense of loss. A picture of Jeffrey Aspern, which Miss Tina had willingly given Mr. L. C., now hung above his desk at home. “When I look at it,” said Mr. L. C., “I can scarcely bare my loss – I mean of the precious papers.”
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved

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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939

by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

What’s this country coming to? What’s the world coming to? People ask these questions daily, reacting to wave after wave of bad or scary news. Here in the U.S., gun violence is out of control. The wealth gap between rich and poor probably hasn’t been this wide since the days of the late 19th century Robber Barons. America’s infrastructure is in serious disrepair. Americans fear terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and we’ve actually had a few in the last several years, although, thankfully, nothing remotely approaching the scale of 9-11. Overseas, millions have been displaced by war, disease, famine, and natural disasters, and millions more have died.

I’m here to reassure people that – believe it or not – it’s not really that bad. We’ve got nothing on the 1930s! Nothing! Overseas, Italy’s Fascist leader, Mussolini, had been in power since the early 1920s. In 1933, Hitler seized power in Germany and, while commencing domestic screw-turning on minorities like the Jews, began dropping hints that Deutschland needed more living space. Japan, ruled by an imperial government dominated by extreme militarists, invaded China, and signed a military pact with Hitler and Mussolini. Less than 20 years since the end of the Great War, which until then had been the bloodiest and most barbaric ever fought, powerful nations were again threatening aggression, which was inherently unsettling, even in a U.S. gripped by isolationism.

At home in the 1930s, the impact of the Great Depression on ordinary Americans was profound. The stock market crash of October 1929, and its cascading effects over a period of years, ultimately threw one-quarter to one-third of the U.S. labor force out of work. When people lost their jobs, they had nothing to fall back on. Thousands of banks across the country were failing and savings accounts wiped out. There was no such thing as unemployment compensation. For those who had work, there was no minimum wage; these “lucky” working people were often paid so little that they couldn’t afford food or clothing or gas for the car to look elsewhere for a better job (if one existed), or to keep a roof over their heads. There was no right to unionize in hopes of negotiating a living wage or a more humane work schedule. There were no food stamps or other public assistance, nor support for starving children or babies. On top of that, even before the Depression hit, too many Americans were already living hand-to-mouth. And Great Depression or no Great Depression, in the fourth decade of the 20th century millions of families across the U.S. still had no electricity or running water. This was the America of March 4, 1933, the date on which Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president.

Despite the remarkable achievements of the New Deal, including arresting the downward spiral of the economy, stabilizing banking, instituting relief programs, and employing huge numbers of people to do useful things that private enterprise was not going to do, the enormity of the country’s problems was so great that, by the mid-30s, too many people were still suffering too much on too large a scale. Business interests were launching legal challenges to New Deal programs and local communities who didn’t want “those” people to be helped in their neighborhoods began pushing back. “I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day,” declared President Roosevelt in his 1937 second inaugural address. “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

In the middle of all this, the Dust Bowl happened. It has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, a terrible legacy from too many years of terrible farming practices, combined with a historic drought, that ruined the soil and turned huge portions of nine states, including Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, into deserts of swirling dust storms that blackened the sky and ruined farms, homes, livelihoods, lungs, and lives. This crisis led to the biggest migration of people in U.S. history. Over the course of the decade, an estimated 2.5 million people were ultimately displaced, with hundreds of thousands, desperate for work, making the arduous journey to California by any means possible.

This brings me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature in the English language, or in any language, Wrath was a timely novel with its 1939 publication. Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle 30 years earlier, Steinbeck’s Wrath exposed the heartbreaking economic and social injustices heaped upon a vulnerable American population. In Jungle, it was the exploitation of poor eastern European immigrants in Chicago; in Wrath, it was the struggle for survival of dispossessed “Okies.” Like Jungle, Wrath focuses on one sympathetic family headed by one heroic, male protagonist. In Jungle, the protagonist was newlywed Jurgis Rudkus, just arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania along with his extended family; in Wrath, it was young Tom Joad, newly released from an Oklahoma prison after serving a minimum sentence for a case of self-defense the law called a “homicide.” Both men were at or near their physical apex and naively hopeful of enjoying a fresh start.

Jurgis and Tom both assumed that they could pick up where they left off before the break between old life and new. The Lithuanian would just show up at a meat-packing plant, be selected because he was so big and strong, work really hard, make lots of money, and move up in the world. He rejected warnings that things could go very wrong: “That is well enough for people like you… puny fellows – but my back is broad.” Tom, with a criminal record, looked forward to working the farm with his own extended sharecropping family. “I’m goin’ to my old man’s place so I don’t have to lie to get a job.” The truck driver he was hitching a ride with was surprised at Tom’s confidence. “A forty-acre cropper and he ain’t been dusted out and he ain’t been tractored out?” “Well,” said Tom, “I ain’t heard lately. I never was no hand to write, nor my old man neither.”

Jurgis and Tom were both due for a rude awakening. Jurgis’s was more incremental than Tom’s. Calamity befell one Rudkus family member after another. Illnesses and work-related injuries sidelined cousin, father, and finally, Jurgis himself. The small children of Aunt Elzbieta would have to work, too. Jurgis’s wife, Ona, was forced into prostitution by his boss; then she died, along with their only child. Jurgis’s long odyssey to becoming a radical took years, and the book ended like a political tract rather than a story, with long passages of preachy language uttered by activists exhorting Jurgis and his fellows to join the Socialists: “There are a million people, men and women and children, who share the curse of the wage-slave; who toil every hour they can stand and see, for just enough to keep them alive; who are condemned till the end of their days to monotony and weariness, to hunger and misery, to heat and cold, to dirt and disease, to ignorance and drunkenness and vice!” Author Upton Sinclair ensured that no one missed his point, so he used a cudgel where a poker would have done just as well.

Tom Joad’s odyssey was shorter; Steinbeck had a knack for interweaving his beliefs into the dialogue and the plot. His points were folksier and filled with more genuine emotion. If he couldn’t convey exactly what he wanted through his characters, he put the plight of the Joad family and the other migrants into context with short chapters of Bible-style declaratives that gently broke up the story’s narrative.

What living in dust was like: “All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.”

What being forced out of their homes by the big banks or large, absentee owners was like: “The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests…. The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them…. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were.”

What it looked like to have their homes ploughed under: “Across the dooryard the tractor cut… The iron guard bit into the house-corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation so that it fell sideways….”

What it was like to leave the Dust Bowl for California: “People in flight along [Route] 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.”

Tom Joad returned from prison to his hometown of Sallisaw in his only clothes – his prison-issued suit, shoes and hat – and walked down dusty and desolate roads, to find that his family was gone; the house was ploughed under; the Joads had gone to live with Uncle John, whose house was safe for the moment, until they were ready to head West. Tom and a homeless, ex-preacher named Casy arrived at Uncle John’s just in time for the long journey. Tom and Casy and Ma and Pa and Grampa and Granma and Uncle John; brother Noah; 18-year-old, pregnant Rosasharn (actually “Rose of Sharon”) and her immature husband Connie Rivers; horny, 16-year-old, brother Al; and children Ruthie and Winfield - plus the dog – all piled into a used 1925 Hudson Super Six Coach that they had just purchased and converted into a kind of truck. Neatly organized and stacked were mattresses, tarpaulin, essential household items, and salted meat from two just-slaughtered hogs. The Joads also took with them all the money they had in the world, a little over one hundred dollars.

As a parolee, Tom wasn’t supposed to leave the state, and if he got into even minor trouble outside Oklahoma, he could be arrested and sent back from whence he came. But he had no choice; there was nothing to keep him in Oklahoma, and he had to be with his family.

The trip to California was, at best, monotonous and uncomfortable. They drove through heat and rain and nighttime and daytime, hour after hour and day after day, up mountains and into valleys, with stops along rivers, creeks, and streams at camp grounds that took an unwelcome bite out of the family budget. Despite having just been reunited with everyone after four years, Tom was the leader and moral center of the Joads. And he was very much needed as they slowly lost family members: the dog was run over by a car; Grampa and then Granma passed away; Noah, the oldest sibling, feeling alienated, left the Joads to make his way alone; and, once they reached California, Rosasharn’s husband Connie disappeared, while Casy surrendered to authorities for a physical altercation he had had with an uncaring, reckless sheriff’s deputy. Almost all of this is told by means of dialogue, in the vernacular, which is probably the easiest way to get to know the characters.

When Wilson and sickly Sairy’s car broke down – the Joads had met the couple at their first camping stop and they teamed up for much of the rest of the trip (“We got almost a kin bond,” said Pa) – panic set in; they were low on funds, food and gas, short on time, and without replacement auto parts. Teenage Al, who had taken charge of the truck and much of the driving, fancied himself an auto mechanic, but deferred to Tom, the handiest of the Joads. Tom advised: “We got to get a new part an’ hone her an’ shim her an’ fit her. Good day’s job.” He suggested that everyone but him and Casy keep going: “Me an’Casy’ll stop here an’ fix this here car an’ then we drive on, day an’ night, an’ we’ll catch up, or if we don’t meet on the road, you’ll be a-workin’ [in California] anyways.” But Ma was so stressed that, in an irrational fury, she threatened the family with a jack handle, and rejected Tom’s idea: “All we got is the family unbroken. Like a bunch a cows, when the lobos are ranging, stick all together. I ain’t scared while we’re all here… but I ain’t gonna see us bust up.” Tom, wiser and less easily rattled than everyone else, reminded Ma that Granma needed shade and water, neither of which was available where the car had broken down. The wise son directed the others: “Al, you drive the folks on an’ get ‘em camped, an’ then you bring the truck back here. Me an’ the preacher’ll get the pan off. Then, if we can make it, we’ll run in Santa Rosa an’ try an’ get a con-rod [connecting rod].”

On the road, the Joads had little opportunity to eat, drink, bathe, or wash their clothes. They struggled to keep their “decency,” as Tom put it, and by that he meant their dignity, but they couldn’t help but be hungry, thirsty, exhausted to the point of numbness, and filthy. When they reached California, their unsightly possessions thrown willy-nilly in the back of the truck after days and days of packing and unpacking, the well-scrubbed natives recoiled in horror. A white-uniformed employee of a service station where the Joads stopped for gas remarked afterward: “Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.”

In California, the Joads faced one indignity after another. They and other families abandoned one migrant camp because the locals threatened to burn it down if they didn’t. The Joads reluctantly left the “government camp” they found, one of 18 established in California by Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration – a democratically-run place with running water, toilets, showers, and tubs, country dances on Saturday night, and an opportunity for migrants to work on site for their rent – because, without paying work, they could never get ahead, no matter how wonderful the camp was. So it was back to squalor and hunting for work as far as the meager gas they could afford would take them.

(The government camps were also under threat from the locals, who were eager to stage a violent incident so that deputies could go in and “clean out the camp,” as one kindly small farm owner warned Tom and some eager-to-work companions, and explained the prevailing point of view among the large farm owners: “Those folks in the camp are getting used to being treated like humans. When they go back to the squatters’ camps they’ll be hard to handle.”)

The fruit- and cotton-picking jobs, which everyone wanted, and which migrant children also worked, were few compared to the number of migrants seeking employment, and of short duration. The companies happily hired as many migrants as wanted to stick around, regardless of pay, and proceeded to lower everyone’s already low daily wages to well below subsistence level.

The tipping point in Wrath came when the beloved Casy was murdered right in front of Tom. It happened after Tom tiptoed out of a squatters’ camp at night to see why the authorities were surrounding the area, and he literally stumbled upon Casy, who, released from jail, had joined other striking migrants and was camping with them in the shadows. Casy explained why they were on strike: “Lookie, Tom…. We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents. They was a hell of a lot of us. We got there an’ they says they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents. A fella can’t even eat on that, an’ if he got kids – So we says we won’t take it. So they druv us off. An’ all the cops in the worl’ come down on us.”

Deputies wielding clubs found the hiding place of the striking men. Startled, Casy told the officers, “You fellas don’ know what you’re doin’. You’re helpin’ to starve kids.” A deputy called him a “red son-of-a-bitch” and smashed in his head with a club. Tom reflexively grabbed the same club and killed the deputy with it; he, in turn, received a blow in the face from another deputy. Badly wounded, Tom fled. Now a fugitive, he must separate himself from the remaining Joads to keep them from trouble, even though they depended for their well-being on his common sense and stoicism. Ma begged him to stay. “Pa’s lost his place,” Ma said. “He ain’t the head no more. We’re crackin’ up, Tom. There ain’t no fambly now.”

Eventually, Ma accepted that Tom had to leave, but she worried that he would be killed. He movingly told her that, even so, he would be present: “Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…. And when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

And here is where the dichotomy between The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is broadest. Jungle never approached the eloquence of Wrath. Jurgis Rudkus was unable, probably, to put his plight and the plight of his family, and others like them, into words. Other, tangential characters – Socialist thinkers – did this for him, in stilted, abstract language. He and most everyone else in Jungle seemed distant from the reader, symbols rather than human beings. Tom Joad, especially, and other important characters in Wrath, internalized, embodied, and recounted the message of the book throughout its pages, while the Biblical cadence of the author’s narrative – between scenes, as it were – contextualized what was happening to the Joads. Yet Wrath’s message of economic and social justice is very similar to that in Jungle.

The very existence of The Jungle has been reduced to a factoid that children learn in school, that the book was simply an expose of the disgusting slaughterhouse practices and working conditions of big-city meat-packing plants, and that these things led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. No one knows Jurgis Rudkus or his extended family now, and the long, political speeches at the end of the book remain largely unread today. But it’s impossible to read The Grapes of Wrath without shedding a tear over the plight of the Joads and the other migrants, and the social and economic web that held them captive and was destroying their lives. You loved the Joads, who tried so hard and so unsuccessfully to better themselves, and you viscerally hated what was happening to them. This is one reason of many why The Grapes of Wrath is so memorable, so treasured, and, despite its 1930s setting, so timeless.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved
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Enough is enough

Who is as disgusted as I am about the U.S. Senate votes yesterday on gun control? And let's be aware, people, that these were not up-or-down votes on the merits of the legislation. These were votes on whether to vote on gun control! What, you ask? How can this be? Well, I'll tell you. There's this game that's being played in the U.S. Senate, spearheaded by Senate Republicans ever since President Obama's election, of filibustering 99.9% of all legislation favored by the President and/or the Democrats. Everything. Even things that Republicans had previously supported, they now filibuster.

I see you're wondering what I mean by a "filibuster." Friends, a filibuster is an objection filed by one or more senators to allowing a vote on a particular piece of legislation. Once this objection is filed, the only way to get past it is to secure 60 votes. In other words, 51 votes, a majority, aren't enough to break a filibuster. As you can imagine, a 60-vote threshold is quite difficult to reach for many pieces of legislation. And so it is the case here, with gun legislation.

Did you know that a majority of Senate members voted to break almost all of the filibusters? A majority! Normally, this is enough to get legislation passed. But not when we're talking about a filibuster. With a filibuster, you need 60 votes. So, because the Dems didn't have 60 votes - and some Dems, shamefully, voted to sustain the filibuster - the gun legislation couldn't even be discussed on its merits or receive an up-or-down vote on the merits.

This is especially awful when you consider that a majority of Americans support many of the proposed gun control measures, including, for God's sake, background checks! In fact, 90% of Americans – give or take a percentage point depending on the poll being reported - support background checks! The polls also show that a solid majority favor a ban on assault weapons as well as on high-capacity magazines or gun clips.

But, with some exceptions (McCain, Toomey, Kirk and Collins), the NRA-fearing Republicans in the U.S. Senate - along with some of the Democrats - have thwarted majority sentiment in the United States and refused to consider any gun control legislation! Friends, is this democracy? You can't honestly believe that it is.

First, we have to defeat the NRA and the gun manufacturers. This will involve also defeating many of the members of the Senate who voted to sustain the filibusters against sensible - and sorely needed - gun control legislation. Please check to see whether your senator voted against the filibuster (and for gun control) or voted to sustain the filibuster (and against gun control).

Then we need filibuster reform, and not the timid steps taken by U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Coward-in-Chief Harry Reid. The filibuster either has to go altogether, or the threshold for overcoming a filibuster must be reduced dramatically. Even requiring Senate members to stand in chambers and talk to keep the filibuster going would be an excellent reform, because then the attention of all Americans would be drawn to the individuals who are putting up roadblocks to legislation that most of those same Americans believe is in the public interest.

After that, we need term limits. There are too many members of Congress, of both parties, and in both houses, who are too, too beholden to powerful entities that do not represent the public interest. If we can get politicians to stop worrying about reelection, we might, and probably would, get better legislation from them.

Chief among the powerful entities to which members of Congress are beholden is the horrible NRA. I'm not talking about the NRA members, most of whom apparently favor sensible gun control legislation. I'm talking about the real power behind the NRA - gun manufacturers. At least as detrimental to the public interest are the oil, natural gas and coal industries, which are responsible for not only the most damaging pollution, but also the perpetuation of climate change. Then you've got other manufacturing interests that continue to stand in the way of sensible oversight of chemicals, food safety, and workplace safety. And there is Wall Street, too, with its sensitive feelings always being "hurt" by the mere suggestion that they might be a little too greedy for the public good.

We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but we must be aware of the hurdles, and we must be persistent.
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