Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt And "The New Nationalism"

Think Teddy Roosevelt and what comes to your mind?

Sagamore Hill? San Juan Hill? Yellowstone Park? The White House?

Try Osawatomie, Kansas.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell to you, here’s a little hint. Think John Brown, the fire-eating abolitionist.

Osawatomie Brown, they nicknamed him. Why? Because Osawatomie was the home base of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who engaged in violent rebellion against slavery.

It seems that the New England-born Brown witnessed his son shot and the town of Osawatomie burned to the ground in August 1856 by proslavery forces, during the period when the Kansas territory was at the vortex of national forces gripped in a desperate battle over whether it would be a free or a slave state.

I'll be headed to Osawatomie this summer too. Not just to feel the pulse of the place or to figuratively stand over John Brown's Body. But because of Teddy Roosevelt.

You see, it was to Osawatomie Kansas that Teddy Roosevelt came on Aug 31, 1910, a year after the conclusion of his presidency.

Osawatomie made the news last last year, of course, because President Obama chose it as a place with that historic resonance he was looking for to announce his own statements on American economic policy.

Roosevelt went there for a similar reason --  to deliver a speech, later called the "New Nationalism Address," to give a speech on historically symbolic turf. A speech which is now seen as one of the most important enunciations of progressive ideals in our nation’s history.

It was not TR’s first or last visit to Kansas. The hero of San Juan Hill and former Governor of New York showed up during a campaign visit in 1903, when he was running for Vice President. His “Ride Across Kansas’ was a whistlestop tour, it seems, but it attracted national attention for the adulation he received. “The applause was spontaneous and loud, and it appeared to come from people of all degrees of politics,’ noted the New York Times that year. “It was not so much for Roosevelt as a candidate for Vice President, but for ‘Teddy,’ the Rough Rider and the man.”

By 1910, Roosevelt had already served as President, fiught his political battles, taken on the Wall Street Trusts, and left office.

America's Rough Rider, recently retired, went on a safari to Africa, returned home to New York, and contemplated the political landscape before him.

Teddy Roosevelt was not done speaking out on the issues facing America.

"My proper task," wrote Roosevelt as he prepared the speech he was to give at the dedication of the John Brown Park, "is clearly to announce myself on the vital questions of the day, to set the standards so that it can be seen, and take a position that cannot be misunderstood.”

Among its tenets: Social responsibility of the wealthy. A progressive income tax. A graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes. Transparency in corporate enterprise.

Government supervision of capitalism. Judges that rule for human welfare over property interests. Reining in of ‘state’s rights’ demagogues, in favor of a Hamiltonian concept of federal power.

And a legislature that represents all the people -- not special interests, who ‘twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.’

Roosevelt used the park dedication to attack the ideals of "state's right" demagogues, as he called them. He was interested in a Hamiltonian concept of appropriate use of federal power to protect the rights of individuals against those who would subvert them for personal or corporate gain.

When it came to the relationship between workers and owners, Roosevelt envisioned a balance between labor and capital.

    "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln's. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the working man hear his side. "Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.... Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; . . . property is desirable; is a positive good in the world."

What Roosevelt decried was an imbalance. “Ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism,” intoned Roosevelt before 30,000 listeners on the hot August plains of Kansas.

Sound familiar? It should. Roosevelt was a kind of a front man for the 1910 equivalent of the OWS crowd, engaged “with many of the same issues that confront us now, notably the power of finance and the dangers of concentrated economic power,” wrote the Washington Post in 2011.

President Obama's speech at Osawatomie, delivered in Dec 2011, was of the same ilk -- and powerful enough for the New York Times to declare it "the most potent blow the president has struck against the economic theory at the core of every Republican presidential candidacy and dear to the party’s leaders in Congress. The notion that the market will take care of all problems if taxes are kept low and regulations are minimized may look great on a bumper sticker, but, he said: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” Not before the Great Depression, not in the ’80s, and not in the last decade."

It is fitting but also somewhat sobering that both Roosevelt and Obama chose to speak out on the issue of economic justice in a park dedicated to John Brown, who stood against the forces of slavery in America with such violence that he was tried, convicted and sentenced to execution for treason because of his actions.

John Brown put his body on the line. Unflinchingly.  But before they could hang him, he declared this.  

    Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment,” said Brown after the verdict. “I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done - as I have always freely admitted I have done - in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.”

Roosevelt wasn't hung. But he was derided by many in his day for his progressivism -- in fact he was called a socialist, a charge he dismissed as being ’a slander to socialists.’ And most of the principles he enunciated eventually saw the light of day as the 20th century unfolded.

While there are many who would argue that, in the 21st century, Roosevelt’s ideas are facing their most severe challenge in 100 years, they remain one of the clearest enunciations of progressive principles to be found.

A footnote: it seems his 1910 visit to Osawatomie Kansas to celebrate the John Brown was not his last to the “Sunflower State.”  He did return one last time -- in 1916, to rally Kansans for the war effort.

According to the New York Times, 100,000 people thronged the streets of Kansas City to see Roosevelt. It was a triumphant return, marred only by someone hurling an open jack knife at the beloved American hero.

The assailant, according to the newspaper account, was “a tall, slender man dressed in brown, who had apparently been drinking.” 

 The butt end of the knife, we’re told, hit the arm of one of Roosevelt’s secretaries harmlessly, clattered to the ground, and was picked up by an American Legionnaire who, “closing it carefully, handed it to a nearby policeman.”

“Col Roosevelt first heard of the incident when he was having luncheon at the Muelenbach Hotel as the guest of the Commercial Club,”
noted the Times reporter. “He put it aside with a laugh.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“It’s Fun To Be Fooled/But It’s Better To Be Joe Gould”

Among the many individuals who have given life and color to the streets of Greenwich Village over the decades, one of the most singular was a Harvard graduate by the name of Joe Gould.

The story of Gould, whose life was detailed in a movie released in 2000 called "Joe Gould's Secret," is fairly well disseminated at this point. His confrontational demeanor and cryptic references to an 'Oral History Of Our Time' he was supposedly writing captured the imagination of everyone from e.e. cummings to New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, and eventually the filmmakers who created that movie.

Less well known, however, is that Joe Gould's last stand took place not on Bleecker Street. Five years after he disappeared from the Greenwich Village scene in 1952, amidst rumors that he had died or inherited money, the obituaries were written out for Joe Gould, who styled himself 'The Last Bohemian" prior to the Beat movement, stating that he had taken ill, gone from Columbus Hospital to Bellevue, and ultimately to Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood.

Like Carl Solomon, to whom Allen Ginsberg addressed his famous poem "Howl" in the mid-1950s, Joe Gould lived the last few years of his life in a hospital for the mentally ill.

Who was Joe Gould? And what was this supposed 9 million word oral history, scratched out in five and dime marbled notebooks? Was it a masterwork at all, or was Gould making it up as a story-telling point as he attempted to bum drinks in the local bars of Greenwich Village?

The answer to that question depends on whose version you hear.

Gould came from Norwood, near Boston, from an old New England family that settled the region as far back as 1635. In 1916 he came to New York and achieved a reputation around Greenwich Village, refusing to do any work except to solicit money for the "Joe Gould Fund." While ostensibly at work on his great opus -- one year he held a party mark the completion of 7.3 million words! -- he was busier hanging around and hustling crowds.

His life was colorful according to essayist Dan Balaban, who noted that Gould's day  "usually began in one of the cheap cafés that dotted the West Side in that era. Though he ate a lot of ketchup consommé, he was sometimes flush enough to indulge his taste for seafood ...Evenings found him cadging drinks at the Minetta. Sometimes he crashed the Raven's Poetry Club, reciting doggerel like "A Flatbush Grows in Brooklyn":

Said Johnny Cashmore
To little Noel Coward,
We want no trash more,
Brooklyn can't be defloward.

Here's another famed comment by the irascible Mr Gould -- 

                My Religion

                In the winter I’m a Buddhist
                And in summer I’m a nudist

and this:

                I would give a month’s salary to sleep with you, my dear
                If I worked for the government at a dollar a year.

Gould cut a colorful figure in Greenwich Village. One of his archetypal performances revolved around his ability to speak seagull -- he claimed he could translate any poem into seagull, flapping his wings and skreeking. He claimed that the reason he was blackballed from the 50s lefty art world was a “proletarian poem” which he recited, called “The Barricades:”

This prissy hedge in front of the Brevoort
Is but a symbol of the coming revolution.
These are the barricades,
The barricades,
The barricades.
And behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
And behind these barricades,
The Comrades die --
Of overeating.

Here's Gould's word on the most renowned literary zine of the era, The Dial, which actually published Gould’s essay, “Civilization," on its demise:

Who killed the Dial?
Who killed the Dial?
“I,” said Joe Gould,
“With my inimitable style,
“I killed the Dial.”

Aside from his wit and colorful behavior, however, the mystery of his Oral History Of Our Time remains the most talked about element in his legacy.

In Joe Gould's Secret, filmmaker Stanley Tucci tells the story of two men, one of whom would tell the other's story: famed The New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and New York bohemian Joe Gould. According to the film one day, the softspoken writer encounters Gould, portrayed by Ian Holm. Yankee-born and Harvard-educated, the disheveled Gould is a scholar of the NYC streets. Gould's life's work, Mitchell learns, is "The Oral History of Our Time," a transcription of hundreds of conversations, remarks, and essays about what he has seen and heard. "Every day," writes Mitchell in The New Yorker, "even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, Joe Gould writes in school composition books."  After Mitchell's story appeared in The New Yorker, Gould became a minor celebrity.

According to Gould himself, the idea for the Oral History came to him while he was working as a junior police reporter in New York in 1917. He was recovering from a hangover at police headquarters one summer morning when the concept dawned. He immediately quit his job to work on the book.

He explained: ' . . . I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people -- eavesdropping, if necessary -- and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind -- long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumours, cries from the heart. I decided right then and there that I couldn't possibly continue to hold my job, because it would take up time that I should devote to the Oral History, and I resolved that I would never again accept regular employment unless I absolutely had to or starve but would cut my wants down to the bare bones and depend on friends and well-wishers to see me through. The idea for the Oral History occurred to me around half past ten. Around a quarter to eleven, I stood up and went to a telephone and quit my job . . .'Since that fateful morning . . . the Oral History has been my rope and my scaffold, my bed and my board, my wife and my floozy, my wound and the salt on it, my whiskey and my aspirin, and my rock and my salvation. It is the only thing that matters a damn to me. All else is dross.'

But there's a problem with all that. Not only is Gould an irascible man -- despite being befriended by the likes of William Saroyan, Eugene O'Neill and ee cummings -- but he refuses to show his oral history to anyone.

ee cummings, who wrote several poems about Gould, including a long poem with these lines in it: 'little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them,' had his doubts. Significantly, another line in cummings' poem suggests he knew there was something amiss about the alleged oral history. 'a myth is as good as a mile,' wrote cummings. 'but little joe gould's quote oral/history unquote might (publishers note) be entitled a wraith's progress...'

The movie version of the story strongly suggests that no notebooks every existed. In his obituary, friends said they had no idea what happened to the histories.

However, in the past year or so some of the man's writing has turned up. Eleven of Gould's notebooks were recently rediscovered in an archive in NYU. According to the Village Voice, Gould's diary, which passed through several hands before being purchased by and long forgotten in NYU's Fales Collection, "offers a rare glimpse of the bombastic, ragged five-foot-four Harvard graduate in his own words."

In the end, however, the notebooks bolster rather than contradict the suspicions of Cummings and Mitchell. Instead of a treasure trove of anecdotes into the life and times of Greenwich Village, the books, it has been asserted, was little more than a dry, mechanical day by day account of  Gould's life, including little more than his idiosyncratic foibles, his personal toiletry and his eating habits.

A rather inglorious conclusion to the story, it would seem, to a man whose funeral was attended by NBC, CBS and all the print media.

Yet all is not lost for old Joe Gould. I heard, for example, his portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern. And so long as ee cummings' work is admired, Gould's name will continue to make the anthologies -- albeit as a footnote -- and hang around gathering dust on college shelves. 

                Amérique Je T'Aime and it may be fun to be fooled
                but it's more fun to be little joe gould