Saturday, April 12, 2014

America the Boorish

Domestic Manners of the AmericansDomestic Manners of the Americans by Fanny Trollope
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fanny Trollope, mother of the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, came to America in 1827. She lived for several years in Cincinnati, which was then the hog capital of the nation. She loved America, but loathed Americans. She delighted in America-the-beautiful, but found her citizens boorish and ignorant. They were ridiculously proud of their form of government and stubbornly insisted, against evidence quite obvious to Mrs. Trollope, that all men were created equal. Mrs. Trollope was quick to point out that this vaunted equality was extended to neither Native Americans nor slaves. Mrs. Trollope was glad to return to civilization (Europe) in 1832, and the Americans were doubtless delighted to see her go.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The truth of this observation by Southern writer William Faulkner came home to me as I worked my way through this “perennial classic,” Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Then, as now, differing opinions about where to draw the line between property rights and civil rights divided families, political parties and the country. This sober, nuanced story, which tells what happened after the death of the Great Emancipator, changed my thinking about our country’s past and present. I learned that the South was not a monolith. Some of the propertied people and many of the small, independent farmers were Unionists. I learned that African Americans played a key role in shaping local government policy during the early days of Reconstruction, but that their advances were set aside as white men started reclaiming their positions of power, often resorting to violence. Finally, I learned how the federal government expanded its power during and after the war, taxing income, instituting the draft and building a large bureaucracy. Its role during the early days of Reconstruction as guarantor of the rights of former slaves against local infringement set it at odds with those of that day who revered the Founding Fathers for the strict limits they’d set on centralized power. It was this concentrated power that the Fathers saw as the major threat to individual liberties. This sounds familiar, as well as the fear of 19th-century Republicans and Democrats alike that “special measures” adopted to ease the transition of former slaves to eventual self-sufficiency would foster a “culture of dependency.” The debt-ridden Southern states taxed the poor heavily to pay for education and hospitals, but within a decade were forced to abandon these programs. Eventually, the federal government tired of its effort to reconstruct the South. It never, however, completely disbanded the army, which it now used to break strikes among immigrant laborers and to fight Native Americans. This was not an easy book to read, not only because it covered unfamiliar territory in great detail, but also described atrocities committed against the innocent. I am glad I stuck with it nevertheless.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Grumps

When our younger daughter was in her teens, we redecorated her room. She had the smaller of the two girls' bedrooms, so we got her a loft bed with a built-in desk and bookcase. She chose the jungle wallpaper and her dad put it up. He even wall-papered her little closet so meticulously that we're keeping it that way, even though the bedroom wallpaper was removed yesterday. 

The loftbed has been removed as well. First, we tried giving it away. When there were no takers, we hired a "green" junkman to remove it. He planned to take the bed to a thrift-shop furniture outlet rather than trucking it off to the landfill. We might have kept it forever except that I always forgot about the loft when I sat down at the desk. After banging my head countless times, I knew the bed had to go while I still had sense enough to get rid of it. 

We decided to have both the bedroom and the family room painted at the same time. It's taking three days. They will finish tomorrow. I can't wait! Over a week ago, we started moving the contents of these two rooms to the living room. Two rooms can hold an unbelievable amount of stuff. Our living room looks like it belongs to a hoarder. We can't find anything. We're getting grumpy. Very grumpy.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Fifty two years ago this month, I was at college when I went down to a phone booth in the dorm basement to take a phone call from my mom. "Papa has been killed in a plane crash," she said. I screamed and cried all the way back up to my room. My friends were waiting for me there, sitting on the beds and looking so sad.

Dad was a successful small-town lawyer in Meadville, PA, the county seat. He was also the attorney for a small company. During the last weekend of January, against his better judgement, he and Eddie D., the company vice-president, flew to Buffalo on business in the small company plane. On the way home, Roger, the pilot, attempted a landing at Port Erie Airport, but the plane suddenly dipped and crashed. Ice on the wings were believed to have brought the plane down. 

Later, when Mom was talking about the accident, she said, "Papa was killed, Eddie was badly banged up, and Roger was--"

"Drinking." I finished Mom's sentence for her. Mom looked surprised. "Why, no," she said. "Where did you get that idea?"

It made complete sense to me.  It was beginning to look to me as if nothing was ever done in that town without a drink. On his last Christmas,  Dad kept good-naturedly badgering Aunt Edna all afternoon: "Let's you and me go into the kitchen and cement our friendship." Normally, they had little to say to each other, but that day Edna tee-heed every time he suggested a drink and off they'd go to the kitchen.

Getting drunk was normal, expected and lots of fun. Growing up during Prohibition probably shaped that whole generation's attitudes about drinking. They were in their 20's when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. No one in their crowd was ever an "alcoholic," except for one man, our family dentist. Everyone agreed that he'd been the one with the problem, especially after he slipped and fell on the ice on his front porch and died.

He was the alcoholic, but everyone else was just relaxing and having fun. My dad's friend, who thought church was just for women and children,  prided himself on giving up hard liquor for Lent. Even my dad cut back during court season. I had an artifact of that era that I now wish I hadn't thrown out. It was an ice bucket with a half dozen cartoon scenes of drunken fun. One red-nosed couple stood at an open door holding out measuring cups. The caption read, "We'd just like to borrow a cup of whiskey." My dad received a birthday card facetiously crediting booze for the relatively long lives of human beings compared to animals. One line said, "The horse at twenty cashes in without the aid of rum or gin." And then there were songs on old 78 rpm records: "Don't roll your bloodshot eyes at me. I can tell you've been out on a spree."

One couple in my parents' crowd brought scorn down on their heads by trying to ration the drinks. Everyone had gathered at their house one evening before going to the club for dinner. The K's announced that they would like some "intelligent conversation" for once. They were limiting their guests to two cocktails apiece. Months later, people were still laughing and shaking their heads at the K's misguided attempt to change the rules.

A Japanese proverb says, "First a man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. And then the drink takes the man." Toward the end of his life, my dad's hard-drinking friends started to worry that he had "lost control." As if he'd ever had it. He'd been collecting citations for driving under the influence, but was always let off with a warning because of his position in the community. Then a policeman came to the door after midnight to tell Mom he had found Dad's car at the side of the road, lights on, engine running, door open, no Dad. They found him eventually. Then there was the time Dad embarrassed himself during a radio broadcast of the town meeting. Opposed to annexing West Mead township to the city of Meadville,  he attacked his opponent in a drunken rant.  He was mortified the next morning when Mom repeated to him some of the things he'd said.

Mom herself was tiring of the perpetual weekend parties. She told me about Dr. and Mrs. C's holiday buffet. Mrs. C had set a beautiful table, using her best china. When someone stumbled into corner of the table, the leg gave way and the table sagged. As if on cue, the guests began gleefully flinging around the food and the dishes, not stopping until they'd totally trashed everything on the table.

So there was my Dad lying in that coffin in midwinter. The quilt looked warm and comforting, with pictures of pheasants rising in flight. Dad would have liked that. The son of a barkeeper and pool hall owner, he had done the things he thought well-off people did, playing golf in the summer, shooting skeet in the fall, and enjoying fine whiskey. Seeing him there, Mom said, sadly, "He looks just like a little boy."  We both knew that his chances of overcoming his drinking problem had been nil. Perhaps this was for the best.