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The Story of the Great
Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and
The Search for the Virus that Caused it
(Farrar Straus & Giroux)ome say it killed 20,000,000 people; others guess that the figure was closer to 100,000,000. It appeared suddenly as WWI was ending, lasted for less than a year, and then completely disappeared. 500,000 Americans --- mostly the young and the healthy --- died. Whole villages were devastated, including some in far corners of the earth --- Western Samoa lost 40% of its population, some Eskimo villages in the Arctic were reduced by over 70%.
The victims would sicken, their lungs would fill with a bloody froth, and in a couple of days they would be dead. Those that didn't die of the flu died from the pneumonia that immediately set in. Strangest of all, after the flu disappeared, it also disappeared from the consciousness of most of us, except for those who lost family or lovers. (The tragedy, as with AIDS, was that most of the victims were young, most were in robust health --- their average age was 20 - 40). The scientific literature has always been spotty, and, until now, few books have been written about it. It represents what the author calls a singular case of medical amnesia.
Recently, the epidemic has reappeared in our consciousness (and in our nightmares) because --- although most traces of the virus have disappeared --- several researchers have gone to places where the tissues of those who died have been preserved. This means digging into the repositories of various medical institutions. (One such, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, has been collecting tissue from the military dead since the Civil War.)
Even more creatively, scientists have been going to places in the far north where flu victims have been buried for all these years in permafrost. The theory is that using new scientific techniques now available to us we might be able to reconstruct the structure of the virus --- and be prepared if such a pandemic were to recur.
Ms. Kolata's story is told with care and precision, and at times has the elements of a good detective story. At other times, however, she veers off on lengthy digressions. For example, we have a chapter devoted to the swine flu which --- on the basis of a handful of cases at Fort Dix, New Jersey --- seemed to infect the brains of our top scientists with the fear that the epidemic of 1918 was about to return. The narrative bogs down with that story from 1971 --- with its many digressions and attendant lawsuits.
But, overall, the details Kolata digs up about the flu are fascinating: that the 1918 epidemic may well have begun in 1916 or, even more remotely, with a more benign version in 1890; that --- for scientific testing --- the one animal that can be infected with it is the ferret, a feisty little creature that bitterly resented having its long nose daubed with germs; that no one --- yet --- knows why the flu disappeared as quickly as it did without mutating; and most interesting of all, the revelation that all flu pandemics start in one place in the world: namely, in South China --- because of the peculiarity of its farming techniques:
While the rice is growing, they put ducks on the flooded fields. The ducks eat insects and even weeds, but do not touch the rice....The problem, however, is that the farmers also keep pigs that live alongside the ducks.
Pigs are known to be a rich source of the flu --- there was a swine flu epidemic concurrent with the more virulent version of 1918 --- and the virus can be particularly nasty when it begins in the intestinal system of birds, then mutates in the guts of porkers. It goes without saying that this pig-and-duck routine shows no sign of being rooted out of the Guangdong region of China and, for that reason, one day, many of us might find ourselves going quackers, oinking, and waking up dead.--- Ignacio Schwartz
(Scribner)rank McCourt hit the jackpot several years ago with his early memoirs, Angela's Ashes. It was a Gaelic mix of Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, with some Joyce Cary thrown in. It was funny and bitterly sad --- a We grew up in Ireland with a drunken father and a persistent mother and a mountain of brothers and sisters and even though we were dying of starvation with fleas let me tell you some very funny things that happened to us type of tale.
'Tis is a follow-up, and it's been panned by critics for not being in the same league as the first book. That may well be true but still, McCourt is the kind of writer who can produce bitterly funny stuff, apparently at the drop of a hat, telling you about his life-long pink-eye disease, or how the priest tried to get in his pants in the hotel, or what it was like to work as a longshoreman, and go to school, send checks to his mother, and listen to people commenting on his brogue, and try to get laid all at the same time.
Some writers are masters of the page, some of the chapter, and some --- like Faulkner and Joyce --- of the single sentence. McCourt is the master of the breathless paragraph. For example, he is eternally having to deal with people in New York who hear his accent and --- while they are screwing him out of something --- tell him about their mother, or father, or whole family, coming from Ireland. This is McCourt trying to get a loan:
The man at the Beneficial Finance says, Do I detect a brogue? He tells me where his mother and father came from in Ireland and how he plans to visit himself though that'd be hard with six kids, ha ha. His mother comes from a family of nineteen. Can you believe that? Nineteen kids. Of course seven died but what the hell. That's how it was in the old days back in the Old Country. They had kids like rabbits.
If there is a theme to 'Tis, 'tis one of shame. McCourt is ashamed of his brogue or rather he wishes he could open his mouth without everyone putting him in an Irish pigeonhole. He's ashamed of his eyes that are red and suppurate, ashamed that he doesn't know Camus and Sartre from nothing, ashamed that he gets mad at his mother for eating too much, ashamed that he grew up poor, ashamed that he can't control the class he teaches at vocational school in Staten Island.
Most of all, it's narrative drama --- the kind of stories you hear late at night in some pub in Skibbereen or Cork, and it's a kick and a laugh and one doesn't want to put it down, at least not until he begins to run out of steam and Guinness Stout around Chapter 40, where he starts ragging on his poor old Irish Mum for eating too much and being alone in New York and never calling him. At that point 'Tis turns into the old Irish Nag, but, in the end --- who cares? --- for the first half of his tale, a Portrait of the Young Artist in New York, is a joy because this guy came out of the cradle writhing words together like a master. He's a reporter with an exacting ear for the Irish song-in-words.
For instance, McCourt includes here the first piece of creative writing he ever did when he got to the United States, and if you and I were teachers we'd take one look at this guy's story and tell him he should drop everything and write for a living --- which is exactly what he's done:
The BedWhen I was growing up in Limerick my mother had to go to the St. Vincent de Paul Society to see if she could get a bed for me and my brothers, Malachy, Michael, and Alphie who was barely walking. The man at the St. Vincent de Paul said he could give her a docket to go down to the Irishtown to a place that sold secondhand beds. My mother asked him couldn't we get a new bed because you never know what you're getting with an old one. There could be all kinds of diseases.
The man said beggars can't be choosers and my mother shouldn't be so particular.
But she wouldn't give up. She asked if it was possible at least to find out if anyone had died in the bed. Surely that wasn't asking too much. She wouldn't want to be lying in her own bed at night thinking about her four small sons sleeping on a mattress that someone had died on, maybe some that had a fever or consumption.
The St Vincent de Paul man said, Missus, if you don't want this bed give me back the docket and I'll give it to someone that's not so particular.
Mam said, Ah, no, and she came home to get Alphie's pram so that we could carry the mattress, the spring and the bedstead. The man in the shop in the Irishtown wanted her to take a mattress with hair sticking out and spots and stains all over but my mother said she wouldn't let a cow sleep on a bed like that, didn't the man have another mattress over there in the corner? The man grumbled and said, All right, all right. Bejesus, the charity cases is gettin' very particular these days, and he stayed behind his counter watching us drag the mattress outside.
We had to push the pram up and down the streets of Limerick three times for the mattress and the different parts of the iron bedstead, the head, the end, the supports, and the spring. My mother said she was ashamed of her life and wished she could do this at night. The man said he was sorry for her troubles but he closed at six sharp and wouldn't stay open if the Holy Family came for a bed.
It was hard pushing the pram because it had one bockety wheel that wanted to go its own way and it was harder still with Alphie buried under the mattress screaming for his mother.
My father was there to drag the mattress upstairs and he helped us put the spring and the bedstead together. Of course he wouldn't help us push the pram two miles from the Irishtown because he'd be ashamed of the spectacle. He was from the North of Ireland and they must have a different way of bringing home the bed.
We had old overcoats to put on the bed because the St. Vincent de Paul Society wouldn't give us a docket for the sheets and blankets. My mother lit the fire and when we sat around it drinking tea she said at least we're all off the floor and isn't God good.
§ § §
It's pretends to be a story but if you look at it closely, it's also a play, a morality play with the same kind of dialogue that makes us want to drop our drab friends in Connecticut and move to Limerick, living above the pub where we'll spend nights listening to druid magic. In 500 or so words, you and I are presented with an elegant sketch of McCourt's mother, his father, and even the cranky old men that hand out beds for the poor. If Henry James ever unloosened enough to write about the benighted, he would need a whole book to tell us what McCourt has managed to shrink-wrap into eight fine paragraphs.--- T. S. O'TooleDeath in
The MountainsPedro Sanchez died yesterday. No big deal. Except to his family --- wife Sarah, and the three kids: Emiliano aged 8, Juana, 4-1/2, and the esquincle, the one they called Junior --- barely six months old.
I liked Pedro. You probably would have liked him too. Good worker. Honest. He did some carpentry work for me at my place in Puerto Perdido. Built a hutch for me to store things in when I go north. Nice job --- artistic even --- with good strong supports. And it wasn't too expensive. Pedro didn't cheat me. He didn't do that to people, even to gringos.
Pedro died in the mountains, the Sierras, just east of El Cajon, there on the Mexican - U. S. border. It's rough country up there.
Heart attack, says the migra --- the U. S. Border guards. They are the ones who brought his body in. The other Mexicans who were travelling with him didn't stop, couldn't stop to help him. When you don't have papers, even when one of your compañeros dies crossing the border, you have to keep going.
If Pedro knew he had a heart problem, he never told the rest of us. He was only thirty-five, seemed very healthy. It might have been the strain of his last days on the road. He had been travelling for over a week just to get to the frontera.
Pedro had been crossing over into California for over ten years. He would go up to Los Angeles every year to work in the CarPlace fabric shop. It wasn't a job that many Americans wanted but Pedro was capable, and worked hard, and the owner was always glad to see him, never asked for an ID. Even with the minimum wage, Pedro could make enough money to take back to his family so they could eat, buy clothes, get medicine for the kids.
He was done in by what they call Operation Gatekeeper. Nice name. Gives us a picture of a gate, a pleasant old man waiting at the gate. If you have papers, you get through; if not, the old man shakes his head, says you have to go back.
Pedro didn't have any papers. He tried, but the U. S. State Department doesn't give visas to poor folk from Southern Mexico. If you own land, or have a big business in Mexico city, or run a maquiladora --- you can get a visa. But Pedro didn't own any land, except the 20 by 30 foot lot where he lives, and his only business was carpentry and the work he had done to the north.
"It used to be easy getting in," he told me once. "It was like a game." La migra would try to stop them, but it was no big deal. "They knew we were just looking for work. If we hid long enough, they'd go off for coffee, and we'd cross over, near Chula Vista, and get on a bus, and be in Los Angeles the next day."
But then came Operation Gatekeeper. Sponsored by Gov. Pete Wilson of California, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California --- among others. The number of agents patrolling this part of the border went up by a factor of eight. The U. S. Government installed flood-lights to illuminate the canyons near the border. They built a ten foot cement fence starting at the Pacific, going east. Those who know it intimately call it "La Pared Berlin" --- The Berlin Wall.
They brought in hundreds of Ford Broncos to give chase to the Mexicans. People like Pedro, who had crossed so easily before, suddenly became the enemy. They had to start going up into the mountains of East San Diego County to get over.
It's rough country up there --- especially for the women and the children. It may take three or four days to get across. In the summer the temperatures can be scorching, and --- sometimes, in the winter --- it snows. No one tells you what to expect. People wear street shoes, tee-shirts, and jeans because they don't know any better. They aren't prepared, and the "coyotes" --- those who get $300 or $400 to take them across --- don't tell them. Sometimes, when the going gets rough, the coyotes just disappear, head back towards Mexico.
There are snakes, scorpions, tricky paths and deep arroyos. Sometimes you run out of food and water. And sometimes, in the dark, you find yourself plunging down the side of a canyon. If you break something --- an arm or a leg --- you are on your own: the others will be forced to leave you behind.
The services for Pedro will be held in San Sebastian next week. It'll be a simple ceremony. It cost Sarah almost every peso she had to get the body shipped back. It's a poor town, and there's not much in the way of spare change, even for funerals.
Pedro's friends will hoist the coffin and carry it to the panteón where he will be buried next to his grandfather, Enrique. I expect there will be quite a crowd. Pedro was a good man --- straight, honest. Liked a drink from time to time, but never got into brawls at the local cantina. Lived a quiet life with Sarah and the kids. Never a harsh word --- even for his mother-in-law, the one they call Doña Pedo, who's forever and a day complaining about how poor she is, even though she has over five hectáreas of land.
I'm going to be there at the funeral, and I was thinking that we might want to invite some of the people involved in Operation Gatekeeper to come along --- Pete Wilson, Ted Stevens, Lamar Smith, Duncan Hunter. They might like to see the result of their handiwork, have a chance to meet Sarah, shake hands with the oldest son (who now has no father), look at the daughter (who now has no father), see the baby (who now has no father).
They say that it was Pedro's heart that gave out, there in the Sierras. The migra was chasing him up a hill, and all of a sudden he fell, twisted around, cried out --- and he was gone.
The INS agents found his wallet, found the pictures of Sarah and the kids, and his ID card. That's how they were able to identify him.
The U. S. Government did help a little. They paid to bring the body over the border to Mexicali. That was where Sarah came to pick him up, to bring him home. She can't read so they had to show her where to sign the receipt.--- Carlos Amantea[This article also appeared in salon.com]
(Penguin)lorie is eighty years old, was born in the Azores, and came to the United States with her family when she was four. She has been married and widowed, lives across the street from her daughter Louisa and son-in-law Patrick, CPA --- and she's losing it a bit. She watches Oprah, the pope at Christmas Mass, and wishes she had been more like Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth Taylor, Scarlett O'Hara or Lucille Ball.
Her husband Jack has been in the grave a long time, so each day she comes home to talk to him. She gossips with him about the past, their marriage, their children, grandchildren, and in-laws. He's a solid type, probably didn't cheat on her when he was still around, and makes astute comments about what she should be doing.
The author of Glorie has worked at The New York Times for many years, first as film reviewer, and now as chief television critic. Except for the job connection, we can think of no good reason in the world why the Times would list Glorie as a NYTNotable Book, giving it rave reviews ("Wrenching and funny. An especially stirring and charming novel...")
We managed to make it to Chapter Six before dozing off, like Glorie does when she watches Oprah. We suspect the novel got murdered in the crib not by its characters, nor by its story-line --- but by its writing style. Ms. James has been writing film, TV, and book reviews for the Times for so long that she's forgotten how to get a bit of glissando in her prose. Glorie is a victim of the journalistic style of the most esteemed newspaper in America --- which means that it makes no difference if you are doing International News, Arts, Sports or the Obits --- your language has better be simple, direct, and tediously free of any hint of whimsy.
There are moments where Ms. James almost gets the old literary engine revved up and running. Glorie embarks on a hare-brained scheme to snare Steve, the local bus driver, who takes her about on Tuesdays and Fridays. She dresses up, and when she gets on the bus, he says, "Glad you're dressed for the weather in that pretty blue coat. It's getting nippy out."
Like all who are lonely, and want love --- she begins to analyze every word he says to her. "He said pretty. Does that mean something?" She then has visions of the bus pulling in her driveway, him coming into the house, and a friendly dialogue in the kitchen: and she frets about what she is going to say to him. When she goes to get off the bus, he turns away, and she realizes that she has been --- like most of us when we are chasing a will 'o the wisp --- acting an idiot.
Outside of a few choice warm spots like this, most of Glorie is a chill. If Ms. James wants to embark on the improbable career of a novelist, perhaps she should take a few months off from the editorial rat race, retire to the Hamptons, read what other writers have done with age. There's Nabokov's Pnin. There are the superb cast of characters in Momenti Mori. Or, best, The Horses' Mouth: Gully Jimson is a first-rate geezer, as eccentric and funny as they come. Perhaps it's because Joyce Carey had better sense than to be hammering out reviews to line the canary cage. He spent his life writing like a master, and mastering the English language.
Ms. James would certainly benefit by abandoning The Official Style Book of the New York Times long enough to investigate, for a change, the theory and practice of original geeze fiction.Pages read: 130
Total number of pages: 229--- Wendy Schott
Robert BurnsFlow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes!
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise!
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream ---
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream!
Thou stock dove whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear ---
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering fair!
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear, winding rills!
There daily I wander, as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.
How pleasant thy banks and green vallies below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild ev'ning weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides!
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As, gath'ring sweet flow'rets, she stems thy clear wave!
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes!
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays!
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream ---
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream!
(AK/Nabat)ack Black was your quintessential thieving bum. Starting at age fifteen, and for thirty years, he stole his way through turn-of-the-century United States and Canada. Finally, at age forty-five, after spending much of his life in and out of prison, he went straight and --- with the publication of You Can't Win in 1926 --- became something of a national character, living out his old age in San Francisco, working as, if you will believe it, a librarian.
What a story it is. He rode the rails and lived as a bum. At times, he had enough money to squander everything on faro and dope. At other times, he was too poor to buy a five-cent cup of coffee. He did second-story jobs. He robbed safes and cash registers. He snuck into hotel rooms at three in the morning and pulled wallets out from under sleepers' heads. His meticulous detail is the glue that holds this whole fascinating story together (and gives us a righteous lesson in the etymology of some of our current vocabulary):
The expression "I have him pegged," which has crept into common usage, is thieves' slang pure and simple, and has nothing to do with the game of cribbage as many suppose. The thief, to save himself the trouble of staying up all night watching a spot to make sure no one enters after closing hours, puts a small wooden peg in the door jamb after the place is locked up. At five or six o'clock in the morning he takes a look. If the peg is in place the door has not been opened. If it is found lying in the doorway, that means somebody has opened the door in the night. If he finds the place is visited in the night he must then stay out and learn why and at what time and how often. He now has the place "pegged" and plans accordingly or passes it up as too tough.
You Can't Win is jam-packed with such delicious information --- often reminding us of novelist Samuel Richardson who described in such loving detail how his young ne'er-do-wells would plot the precise methodology of jimmying locks to reach and deflower the innocent virgin of their choice.
Our fascination with this particular picaresque novel grows out of the verity of it. For example, it's crammed with the vocabulary of the trade: "junk," "stones," "poke," "small book," "yegg," "vag," "chuck," "bum simple," "plant," "get the coin," "hop fiend," "hypos." And the names! The Sanctimonious Kid, Salt Chunk Mary, Soldier Johnnie, Swede Pete, Montana Blacky, Cocky McAllister, Foot-and-a-Half George.
Too, there are the tales of the exacting work spent in casing a joint, planning the procedure, executing it, and then getting the hell out of town (usually having to bury the money or jewelry in case of a search, and return later to retrieve it).
Black says that if readers ever have any thoughts about going into the thievery business --- think of what it is like to have to go into someone else's house at 2 a.m.: crack the back door --- leaving it wedged open in case of the need for a quick escape --- go up the stairs (hoping they don't creak), enter a room where someone is sleeping, go through the drawers and closets while that someone is snoring, three feet away from you. You don't know if the sleeper has a gun, or a violent mastiff --- and even if you get out the door without being murdered, half of your work has just begun, because if you got jewelery, it has to be fenced, and fenced in such a way that you will never be traced.
There are some passages that reach high, almost comic, art. For instance, at the time, one of the punishments in the provinces of Canada was The Lash:
It would not be fair to the reader for me to attempt a detailed description of this flogging. In writing these chronicles I have tried to be fair, reasonable, and rational, and rather than chance misleading anybody by overstating the case I will touch only the high points and leave out the details. No hangman can describe an execution where he has officiated. The best he can do is to describe his end of it, and you have but a one-sided case. The man at a whipping post or tripod can't relate all the details of his beating fully and fairly. He can't see what's going on behind him, and that's where most of the goings-on are...
Furthermore, he does not approach the subject with that impersonal, detached mental attitude so necessary to correct observing and reporting. Mentally he is out of focus, and his perspective is blurred...If I could go away to some lonely, desolate spot and concentrate deeply enough I might manage to put myself in the flogging master's place and make a better job of reporting the matter. But that would entail a mental strain I hesitate to accept, and I doubt if the result would justify the effort.
§ § §
If nothing else, we must be nostalgic for the world that Black lived in. Most cops were on the take --- and sometimes they were generous with their charges --- letting prisoners go if they talked hard enough and fast enough; jails were usually one-room affairs, in which the sheriff's wife did the cooking for the prisoners; cities like San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle --- even Salt Lake City --- were wide open. There was, he claims, an honor among thieves --- and those who were held in highest regard were the con-men who were missing an arm, or a leg.
Black spent the last few years of his life speaking and writing on prison reform. Some of the causes he championed --- the end of flogging, the discontinuation of the use of the strait-jacket, the use of parole to encourage good prisoner behavior --- came to pass. But as Michael Disend points out in the "Afterword," these progressive changes are quickly being vitiated by those who feel more comfortable with the American police state. With 2,000,000 people now in jail or on parole --- more than any other country in the world --- Black's heartfelt work is being rapidly undone, and his efforts for reform have, by now, largely been erased.--- Sarah Teale
Rum, Romanism, & Rebellion
The Making of a President, 1884
Mark Wahlgren Summers
(University of North Carolina)or those of us somewhat vague on late 19th century American history, we know that the phrase "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" meant something important to somebody somewhere. But it wasn't until we read Summers exhaustive discussion of the campaign of 1884 that we learn that one Dr. Samuel D. Burchard, addressing a gathering of the Religious Bureau of the Republican National Committee, a week before the general election, stated,
We are Republicans, and don't propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion. We are loyal to our flag.
What Burchard did, by reciting this triplet, was to saddle the Democrats with being on the wrong side of three of the most sensitive issues of the times:
- Prohibition --- a controversy which the Women's Christian Temperance Union and others had brought to fever pitch;
- Catholicism --- a feared minority of the time (all actions were considered as coming from Rome), and
- The Civil War --- which had but twenty years before, been brought to its bloody end, leaving in its wake no end of bitterness on both sides.
Summers points out that Doctor Burchard was
a lifelong enemy of the saloons, a steadfast Union man who had assembled a regiment of volunteers in the church basement, but [he was] not noticeably anti-Catholic. Perhaps his own explanation later is the best, that like many preachers he could hardly resist a good alliteration, "a mere rhetorical flourish," and improvised on the spur of the moment.
The candidate James G. Blaine was there, in the audience, but there was some question as to whether he even heard. Some thought the minister had said, "Rum, Mormanism, and Rebellion." The newspapers mostly ignored the remark. If Blaine sensed trouble, he didn't do anything until a full three days had passed, when the public actually caught on to the ugliness of the phrase that had come out of the mouth of a man of god, at a Republican rally. By then, it was too late.
§ § §
One of the joys of reading of this campaign is the feeling that they had a hell of a lot more fun with presidential elections than we do now. There was no television to turn the candidates to oatmeal. There were marches, and extended speechifying --- filled with rhetorical flourishes, and dozens of newspapers in the major cities to give dozens of different views of what was said.
The big issue of the campaign before the RR&R gaffe was widespread belief that Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, had fathered a child out of wedlock by a Maria Halpin. The author's conclusion: it might have been Cleveland with his finger in the pie, or --- as likely --- it might well have been some associates of his who he wanted to protect. In any event, he did the right thing, at least by the standards of the time: arranging for housing and shelter for mother and child.
But then as now, the supposed misdeeds of the candidates were subject to extensive, sometimes tedious, examination. Blaine himself was accused of having "betrayed the girl whom he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun." He was even accused of not watching his busses. According to the Indianapolis Sentinel,
No longer ago than last night he kissed two men in this city, and one of these two was a Democrat. It is thus seen that the habit is growing on him. So long as he confined this method to the Republicans the Sentinel did not complain, but he shall not play it on Democrats with our consent.
Summers reviews some of the scandals from previous presidential campaigns:
In 1856, a whispering campaign had imputed homosexuality to James Buchanan; in 1872, Horace Greeley was accused of endorsing "free love and free farms and all that." The attacks on Tilden in 1876 were better veiled...one newspaperman [claimed] that the candidate was "the most utter old spinster that was ever bent on Presidential masturbation..."
Is it any better now? We suspect not. Summers discussion of the calumnies of so many years ago makes our own seem tame by comparison. If he does nothing else, he stirs up a fine sense of déjà vu --- he brings an ancient campaign to life, and makes us long for a time when crowds would actually march down the street, chanting doggerel like:
Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine!
The con-tinental liar from the state of Maine!
Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?
Gone to the White House! Ha, ha, ha!--- R. P. Weise
LETTERSDear Miss Lark,
Why don't you put new reviews and articles in your ratty little magazine? I get tired of looking and finding only the same articles week after week. Salon changes its articles.
Back when A. W. Allworthy was running things, things were better.--- Irate Reader
HG1932@aol.comOur editor replies:
Salon has a capital base of $40,000,000, and 180 writers, editors, and staff.
RALPH has a capital base of $400, a 1912 wood-burning computer, and a few anarchistic, paranoid, drunken, debased --- possibly even imaginary --- part-time writers. What more can you expect from such a bunch of misanthropes?
Of 1939 - 40
William R. Trotter
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)rotter tells us that the Karelian Isthmus of Finland isn't much to look at, has no natural resources, yet "there are few comparably small areas of land in all Europe that have been fought over so often and stubbornly." The reason is that it is the only major land bridge between Russia and the Scandinavian peninsula.
And so, knowing Russia would need passage for the upcoming European conflagration --- in 1939 Stalin asked, then demanded concessions in the Karelian Isthmus from Finland. When he didn't get them, he brought in a large, modern, well-equipped army to fight the ill-equipped army of Finland --- a country of nineteen million. What was astonishing was not that Russia won; what was astonishing was that it took them three-and-a-half months to do so.
Trotter is an admirable writer, and the tale of this war is filled with fascinating facts. The Finnish army may have been motley, but they were perfectly suited for the landscape --- many were farmers from the region, and they fought a guerrilla war not unlike that of Indochina 25 years later.
Despite an appalling lack of arms, they used what little matériel they had brilliantly. Their commanders were resourceful; their strategy was sound; their ability to hold their tide against a million Russian soldiers with all their airplanes, tanks, and firepower was a miracle.
The stories within a major story of a war are what makes for interesting history. Whether it is Tacitus, Clauswitz, Churchill, Fussell, Ward, or Trotter --- what holds the reader are the details. Here we have Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim, who was one of the last of the dying breed of European nobleman commanders, one who was comfortable in at least five languages (except Finnish). At a meal with the German military,
a German officer produced a cigar and asked if it would bother the Marshal if he smoked it. Mannerheim fixed the Wehrmacht officer with a gaze...and cut him dead by replying evenly: "I don't know. No one has ever tried it."
War in the wilds of Finland is not something to be taken lightly. The Russian army arrived in dark uniforms driving typical camouflage colored tanks that could easily be seen against the snow. The grease that worked for other wars in other lands --- for example, against the Japanese in Manchuria --- froze in the barrels of their guns in the sub-zero temperatures. (The secret that took them some time to figure out was to mix the grease with gasoline).
Something as simple as the design of a stove could be vital. The smoke of the Russian kitchens made an ideal target for Finnish riflemen, while the Finns themselves developed a smokeless stove. Sometimes the Russian soldiers were so hungry that they stopped military action at the moment that they overran a Finnish kitchen, creating a "sausage war." In counterattack, the Finns practically destroyed the now well-fed but lethargic battalion, and some Russians died still chewing on their wurst.
Russian tactic demanded straight ahead attacks, ignoring the fact that Finland had few roads --- there was no off-roading in the Arctic at that time --- and equipment and men could get jammed up, easy pickings for sharpshooters traveling by skis. Mannerheim had spent a dozen or so years as a commander in the Russian military --- so he knew the strengths and weaknesses of their tactical systems. His counterattacks involved lightning guerrilla raids from first one flank, then the other, keeping them constantly off balance.
With the exception of the Spanish Civil War, --- the Russo - Finnish Winter War was the most highly reported conflict in the western press during the period between WWI and WWII. The Finns were seen as brave and resourceful: heroes the world could relate to. They were also colorful. Kurt Wallenius, in command of the far north theater,
made great copy; he was profane, feisty, and swaggering. His "trademark" for visiting journalists was bare-chested virility, though more than one reporter privately wondered at the sanity of someone who would walk around with his shirt unbuttoned in temperatures of twenty below zero.
But war is war. Every now and again, what peeps out from under the specific battles and the commanders and the tactics and the names (those Finnish names!) is the fact that men are being butchered; indeed, in one early battle, Trotter reports that Finnish machine gunners had to be treated for shock after killing wave after wave of Russian soldiers who kept on coming, crawling forward on the bodies of those who were dead and dying.
The war lasted 105 days --- from November 26, 1939, to March 13, 1940. 250,000 Russians, it is believed, were killed --- versus 25,000 Finns. A national infrastructure of roads, power lines, dams, and rail links were destroyed --- and would take years to rebuild. At the beginning, the Russian army was an unknown; at the end of the conflict, the world knew that it was powerful; the world also knew how the Russians had mishandled what could have been a two-week conquest of a sparsely populated country. The lessons the general staff learned about fighting an implacable enemy were crucial to the ultimate success that it had two years later against the German Wermacht.
When I was ten years old, my grandmother asked me a riddle: "Why is a fire engine red?" The answer is still, 57 years later, stuck in my memory-bag. It goes:
A fire engine's red.
A newspaper's read too.
Two and two are four.
Three times four is twelve.
Twelve is a ruler.
Queen Mary is a ruler.
Queen Mary is a ship.
The ship sails the sea.
The sea has fish.
The fish have fins.
The Finns fought the Russians.
A fire engine's always a-rushin'.
A Russian is red.
That's why a fire engine's red.
If that little war could creep into the doggerel of my totally a-political granny, it's a sure sign of how the conflict between two far-off nations could become embedded in the consciousness of the then isolationist United States. That she could be teaching me such nonsense when she should have been making me memorize Shakespeare sonnets tells us something about her priorities, too.--- S. J. Larly
[Here is a list of our most popular book reviews, essays and readings, from the last five years. These are the ones that, regularly, day in and day out, receive the most hits from readers.]
- Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, by Marya Hornbacher (Harper). "The truth is," said our reviewer, "Hornbach probably needed nothing more than a couple of whacks on the fanny."http://www.ralphmag.org/newF.html
The World's Most Dangerous Places, An Anti-Travel Guide, by Robert Young Pelton (Fielding). A book that lists of some of the scariest places in the world to find yourself.http://www.ralphmag.org/newJ.html
Heart of Spain: Robert Capa's Photographs of the Spanish Civil War, Leslie A. Martin, Editor (Aperture)http://www.ralphmag.org/newV.html
Six Wars At a Time, The Life of Gutzon Borglum, by Howard and Audrey Shaff (The Center for Western Studies). The life of the eccentric who created the faces of the presidents at Mount Rushmore.http://www.ralphmag.org/borglumP.html
Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls (Harvard Common). A strange and wonderful tale of a living, loving vegetable man. Three British critics picked this as one of the best American novels of all time.http://www.ralphmag.org/caliban.html
Confucius in 90 Minutes, by Paul Strathern. (Ivan R. Dee). Our reviewer imagines Strathern's marching orders: "Keep it short, below 10,000 words. And for christssakes Paul --- keep it light!"http://www.ralphmag.org/briefsU.html
Lady Chatterley's Lover, D. H. Lawrence. (First Penguin Books Edition) "Has some generally useful descriptions of wildlife, botany, and hunting practices at a typical Edwardian English estate, but --- unfortunately --- the noisome activities of a certain gamekeeper and the lady of the house keep getting in the way of these otherwise excellent passages."http://www.ralphmag.org/chatterleyN.html
A Woman of Rome, by Alberto Moravia, Translated by Lydia Holland. (Steerforth Italia). "She pulls all men into her, sees them all with a dispassionate warmth that leads us to believe that perhaps she is one of the divine, a Mary Magdelaine, the Sweet Mother of Jesus, our Lady of the Streets."http://www.ralphmag.org/moraviaZA.html
The Ogre, by Michel Tournier, Translated by Barbara Bray. (Johns Hopkins). "They compare it to The Tin Drum but that book of monsters is flat and myopic compared to the rich symphony of Tournier's work."http://www.ralphmag.org/ogreR.html
Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, by Larry E. Tise (University of Georgia Press).http://www.ralphmag.org/tise.html
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington (Penguin).http://www.ralphmag.org/snake.html
Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber (Harvard). The classic autobiography of a schizophrenic personality.http://www.ralphmag.org/schreber.html
Dr. Laura: The Unauthorized Biography, by Vickie L. Bane (St Martins).http://www.ralphmag.org/dr-lauraZA.html
How Now Shall We Live? Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcy (Tyndale House). Some thoughts on morality from one of the Nixon administration's insiders.http://www.ralphmag.org/charles-colsonZB.html
"Fatty Arbuckle," an appreciation of the classic silent-era movie star, by Douglas Cruickshank.http://www.ralphmag.org/fatty.html
"Why Anti-matter Matters," by Alfred Jarry. Thoughts from the master of 'pataphysical thought.http://www.ralphmag.org/jarry.html
Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy In America, by Laura Kipnis (Duke University Press).http://www.ralphmag.org/bound-and-gaggedU.html
Prayer Warriors: The True Story of a Gay Son, His Fundamentalist Christian Family, and The Battle for His Soul, by Stuart Howell Miller (Alyson).http://www.ralphmag.org/newU.html
The Windsor Style, By Suzy Menkes (Salem House). The Duke & Duchess of Winsor exposed.http://www.ralphmag.org/dukeI.html
"A Brief History of Mexico." "While America was busy with the Civil War, the French landed at Very Cruz and marched on the capitol with wagons filled with baguettes and petits-fours."http://www.ralphmag.org/mexhistory2.html
"Cousin Hans." "I remember sitting alone on the steps, hearing my seven-year-old friend crying out, begging his father to stop, please to stop, please, it hurts so."http://www.ralphmag.org/hans.html
The Ladies of
A. W. Allworthy
The Ladies of the School
Of Bliss have announced that each evening
They are preparing to crush thyme
Against their hearts. The hot waxy juices
Will result in something that's to be known as
The Fat Solution For Dying Stars,
(So named after Susie Star or Susie Dying).
Logs (or legs) will be counted up as they turn
Manfully to eat up all the wimps like Arthur Q.
Freud, son of the master.
The Ladies of the School of Bliss
Have announced that each evening
In order to save them,
They are preparing to crush thyme
Against the Dying Stars.http://www.ralphmag.org/ladies.html
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