Friday, May 21, 2010

Lucky Lindy

On this day in 1927 Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris, where he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. He'd been alone in his plane for two days and hadn't slept in 55 hours. He survived on four sandwiches, two canteens of water and 451 gallons of gasoline. He might have landed anywhere from Portugal to Norway; the $25,000 prize was for crossing the Atlantic and didn't specify a destination. Still a crowd of 100,000 was at Le Bourget to greet him when his plane emerged from low clouds. They lifted him out of the plane like a newborn baby. He became an instant world celebrity, a role he never came to grips with. Fame led to the kidnapping and murder of his young son in 1932. World leaders courted him. In the thirties he became a friend and political ally of the Nazis. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering pinned a medal on him in 1936. Charles Lindbergh appears seven times in A BOOK OF AGES.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Truman's Very Bad Day

Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly on this day in 1945. He'd been dying for a long time, but nobody wanted to admit it. Losing him was too big a catastrophe to think about. A nondescript man in glasses was quickly sworn in to replace him, but nobody knew much about the guy. He was from somewhere in the Midwest. He wore a panama hat and liked to play the piano. Roosevelt had been president for so long it was hard to remember him not being president. Businessmen hated him, giving him little credit for rescuing the economy. The rich called FDR a traitor to his class. To the working man he was almost God. He was enormously self-confident and reassuring, and he was ubiquitous. People hung his picture in their homes and offices. Everybody knew his voice from the radio. Nobody had ever heard of Harry Truman. When Truman expressed his condolences to Mrs. Roosevelt she said she felt more sorry for him. He was the understudy who wakes up onstage. Everyone was looking at him, waiting for him to act, to say something so they'd know what he sounded like, wondering how quickly he would fail. He was sixty years-old. Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt each appear five times in A Book of Ages. Eleanor Roosevelt appears three times.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lee at Appomattox

On this day in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his sword and his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. He was 58, but looks considerably older in the photos we see of him. His beard was white and his physique showed the effects of ill health. Abraham Lincoln had offered him the command of the Union forces in 1861 but he turned him down. He chose to lead the Army of Northern Virginia instead, a romantic and doomed cause, but not a hard choice for him. He performed brilliantly, of course. Prior to the Civil War personal loyalties were to one's home state. It wasn't until afterwards that most people spoke about being Americans. They were Virginians or New Yorkers or Iowans.

Lee was treated generously in defeat, not hung as a traitor as Washington would have had he lost the Revolution. That our better angels prevailed is more surprising considering Lincoln's assassination a week later. Lee went on to be a university president and have riverboats named after him. He died five years later. His last words were "Strike the tent." Or so the newspapers reported. He said that his greatest regret in life was receiving a military education. Robert E. Lee appears four times in A Book of Ages. Grant appears twice, and Lincoln nine times.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Frederic Chopin was born two hundred years ago this week, in the village of Żelazowa Wola. When he was seven months old the family moved to Warsaw, to a house located on the palace grounds which was a much better place for a prodigy to be discovered. His father played the flute and the violin, his mother played the piano. By age six Chopin was playing the piano too and by seven he was performing publicly and being compared to Mozart who was much older, lived in Vienna and had been dead for 26 years. Chopin also composed two polonaises when he was seven, playing them for the amusement of the son of the Russian Archduke who was ruling Poland at the time. (The Archduke, not the son.)

In his teens, while he was staying in the rustic village Szafarnia as a guest of Count Radziwill, Chopin was exposed to the folk melodies that would influence much of his later work, and probably also to the tuberculosis which gave him his intriguing pallor. During this same rural sojourn Chopin learned the characteristic cough of the region, which he took with him when he went to Vienna in 1830. He was twenty years old and an exile. From then on he always carried a small container of Polish soil with him in his luggage. He would never see his homeland again.

When he was 26, Chopin met Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin, better known as the novelist George Sand. She'd been wearing men's trousers for the previous five years and was a formidable personality. The meeting took place at the apartment of Franz Lizst's mistress. Chopin disliked her immediately but soon enough the two were living together. Two years later the two of them vacationed á deux in Majorca, but they had a miserable time because the weather was cold and the rented villa was drafty, and Chopin had to put up with a lousy rented piano. Even though he was sick most of the time he still managed to compose 24 Preludes. Preludes to what? One might well ask; it's never really said.

He was plagued by a cough most of his life, which I speculate may just have been his way of trying to get a word in edgewise in conversations, which Ms. Sand tended to dominate. I also believe it was Chopin who introduced the nineteenth century custom of coughing during the quieter passages of classical music, though I have no way of proving this. George Sand broke up with him in 1847 when she suspected him of falling in love with her daughter Solange. Chopin appears five times in A Book of Ages (Harmon 2008/Three Rivers Press 2010); George Sand appears twice.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Judging a Book by its Cover

When Whitney Cookman was designing the cover of my book in 2007 I showed him several of my dot paintings. He liked this one and used it. It has an apt pointillism; the book is, after all, a 300 page accumulation of pointed anecdotes, unrelated but linked by the accident of being placed next to each other, having taken place in the same year-of-age. What plot the book sustains is invented in the readers mind. The stories are amusing and bite-sized, like the candy the cover art seems to suggest. The paperback edition, published today by Three Rivers Press, has a different cover with a bright orange balloon on it, not painted by me. The balloon is supposed to push the idea that A Book of Ages is a perfect birthday gift, and it is that. Subtlety doesn't usually sell a million copies. But I did like the candy-colored dots.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

O'Hara, Mailer

Today is the birthday of John O'Hara. Nobody had more stories published in the New Yorker magazine, and no one was better at describing 20th century American life.

He was born in 1905, the son of a Pottsville, Pennsylvania physician. When he was twelve years-old his father offered to pay him $10,000 if he would agree to become a doctor. The boy refused. Instead, when he was 14, he stole his father's Buick. This harum-scarum tendency lasted him all his life. He possessed a devout wish for approval but he was as likely to throw the approval directly back in someone's face. He was social, but volatile, a swell friend but sensitive to slights and prone to grudges. Everybody in New York literary circles had their own O'Hara story. His drunken behavior, his kindnesses, his feuds, his sulks and bragging.

This alternately harsh and tender personality finds vivid expression in his stories. They may be the best picture we have about being alive in America at mid-century. What makes his writing so compelling is the transparency of the style. He is unfussy. Less blunt and mannered than Hemingway. Not elaborate like Faulkner, but detailed in his descriptions of place and time and relationships. Unlike Cheever or Fitzgerald, his sentences don't interpose a lovely style between the reader and the material described. The conversations sound spoken. It is all simply there and happening before you. His novels (except for Appointment in Samarra) tend to be baggy and undistinguished, but his stories deserve a much larger audience. John O'Hara appears five times in A Book of Ages. In 1970, the year he died, he was living in Princeton, New Jersey. He dressed in gentleman's tweeds and drove a Rolls Royce. It was also in this last year that he finally learned to swim. He was 65.

It's also the birthday of Norman Mailer, another writer with a chip on his shoulder, a product of New Jersey and Brooklyn, born in 1923. He wrote his first story when he was ten; it was 35,000 words long. He fought in the Pacific during World War II, and described the experience in his novel The Naked and the Dead. At the age of 44 he was arrested for participating in a march on the Pentagon, protesting the war in Vietnam. He wrote another book about that; The Armies of the Night won the Pulitzer Prize. Norman Mailer appears eight times in A Book of Ages.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger and Holden

Word has gone out that J. D. Salinger is dead at 91. The story was broken by his agent, Harold Ober Associates, whose job since the early sixties has been to cash checks and discourage biographers; Salinger has published nothing in recent years. One pictures his house filled with boxes of stories he disliked as soon as he'd written them, unless he burned them to warm the house in the New Hampshire winters.

His Cornish neighbors protected him as carefully as his agents did. Is it the business of an author to be a public personality? Catcher in the Rye inspired teenage rebels and at least one assassin, but was Holden Caulfield a self-portrait? Salinger attracted disciples, most of them young. One of them wrote a memoir about her creepy adolescent relationship with the famous novelist. It was a bestseller; but which of them was creepier?

Salinger was once a rebellious teen, but he also also put on a clean shirt and worked as a recreation director on a cruise ship, mustering a phony bonhomie for the prosperous vacationers. He wrote a story about a kid named Holden Caulfield, which was scheduled to run in the New Yorker when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, suddenly making his story too trivial to publish.

He joined the army, and landed in Normandy on D-Day. He met Hemingway in Paris, and spent Christmas 1944 fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He celebrated his 26th birthday in deep snow, under enemy fire. Then he came home and wrote "the novel" and nothing was the same for him again. He became, in a way, the Roger Maris of American letters. It's all he needed to be. J. D. Salinger appears six times in A Book of Ages.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mozart & Lewis Carroll

Two famous birthdays today.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on this day in 1756. When he was three he was playing the harpsichord. At five he was composing. At six he played for the emperor, sat in the empress's lap and met seven year-old Marie Antoinette. When he was eight he played for George III of England. Brilliant, precocious, and a bit odd, but so would you be if you spent your childhood as a performing curiosity. (But the music is sublime.)

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born on the 27th of January in 1832. He was good at math, and enjoyed devising riddles and stories that turned logic on its head. When he was seventeen he developed a stammer, but he was never as shy or retiring as his subsequent reputation has painted him. He enjoyed the company of children because they laughed at the same things. There's been considerable speculation about these relationships, partly because he never married, but fellows of Oxford colleges in those days could not marry. When he was thirty he took the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church for a row on the Thames, and told them a story about one of them falling down a rabbit hole. Three years later he published it under the name Lewis Carroll.

Lewis Carroll appears eight times in A Book of Ages, Alice Liddell three times, and Mozart six times. (A Book of Ages makes a fun birthday gift.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Public Intellectuals

Yesterday was Susan Sontag's birthday. The New York intellectual with the pale streak in her hair was born in New York City in 1933, but grew up in Tucson and Los Angeles, graduating from North Hollywood High School at age 15. It's interesting to note when intellectuals become intellectuals, when they self-identify as such. And how do they do it exactly? Does it begin with the black turtleneck? Do they start carrying a copy of Schopenhauer around with them? In 1948, Sontag, then called Susan Rosenblatt, bought her first copy of Partisan Review at a newsstand on Hollywood Boulevard. She was a deep thinker already, but that moment is significant. She was fifteen. When she was 31 she was screen tested by Andy Warhol, and her famous essay "Notes on Camp" appeared. In Partisan Review, of course. When she was 43 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and given two years to live. They were wrong about her ability to survive. She lived another 28 years, writing 19 more books. At her death, her personal library contained fifteen thousand books, arranged by historical period. Susan Sontag appears four times in A Book of Ages.

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the first public intellectual in America and the most famous person of his time. Franklin invented the role of the brainy celebrity, toying with the media of his day, provoking and amusing, pushing Americans towards independence and away from slavery, taking unpopular and untimely stands, inconveniencing people. He drove John Adams nearly mad. He was reckless and calculating. Hard to pin down. He was famously agnostic but he knew how to invoke God to make his adversaries look ridiculous. He was a libertine, an unwed father, a poor parent but full of wise advice on parenting, a wit, a scold, a public-spirited liberal and a famous millionaire. He retired in his early forties, but never really retired. Franklin appears 13 times in A Book of Ages, but the stories about him are so numerous and engaging I could have included him a dozen times more. The thing most appealing about Franklin? He made being old seem glamorous.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Martin Luther King Jr. was born on this day in 1929, in Atlanta. A soft-spoken man, conservatively-dressed in suit and tie, a Baptist minister, a believer in common ground and non-violence, King still managed to upset a lot of people. White people accustomed to the Jim Crow traditions of the South felt threatened by him. Even so, his protests were more like walks than marches. They sang hymns.

Martin preached the part in the Bible about turning the other cheek, about answering violence with gentle but firm persistence, even when the police got out the fire department's water cannons. He didn't believe in giving in though. Gentle firm persistence was met with more violence. J. Edgar Hoover set the FBI onto him to destroy his reputation. King was eventually murdered like others in the civil rights movement had been.

He came to national attention in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery Alabama bus. King led the bus boycott that followed. He was 26. In 1963 he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and died in 1968 at the age of 39. Martin Luther King Jr. appears four times in A Book of Ages.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I hear the train a-comin"

On this day in 1968 Johnny Cash performed two concerts at Folsom Prison in California, one at 9:40 AM, the other at 12:40 PM. The album recorded from the two sets was released in May of that year and helped resuscitate the singer's flagging career. He was 35.

Cash wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955. It's about a man stuck in Folsom Prison for not listening to his mother. (She'd urged him not to play with guns, but he subsequently shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.) Johnny Cash appears three times in A Book of Ages. The most poignant anecdote is about the time he met June Carter. It was love at first sight, but as so often happens in country music, Miss Cash was already married.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Common Sense

By the time he was 38, Thomas Paine had been a tax collector, a schoolteacher, tobacconist, journalist, grocer, a failed inventor, an impoverished immigrant and a multiple bankrupt. On this day in 1776 he became a bestselling author. The book wasn't even a book, really; it was a pamphlet titled Common Sense. But it sold a half million copies, and it persuaded a sufficient number of Americans toward independence that independence was declared that summer. Paine also came up with the name for the new country. No mean accomplishment for someone who began his working life at age 13 making women's underwear. Later in 1776 he published another pamphlet, titled The Crisis, which Washington had read out to the troops at Valley Forge. It begins with the words, "These are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Paine appears three times in A Book of Ages.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking... and Elvis

There must be something cosmic I could write about these two, but words fail me. It's the 75th birthday of Elvis. It's also the 68th birthday of cosmologist Stephen Hawking. And that's cosmologist, not cosmetologist. I realize scientists are not as famous as pop stars but Hawking comes as close as anyone to being both. Elvis appears nine times in A Book of Ages. Hawking appears twice, beginning with the entry from age 21. It was during his third year at Oxford that he began experiencing clumsiness in his limbs. The doctors were unsure what it was, but thought it would probably kill him within a few years. It did not. The doctors prescribed vitamins, and Hawking began listening to Wagner. (An entirely logical prescription.) He went on to change the way we perceive the universe, but has been has confined to a wheelchair for many years.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


On this day in 1610 Galileo saw the four largest moons of Jupiter for the first time. He was 45. It was the first time anyone had seen the moons of Jupiter, and it's hard to think how anyone Galileo spoke to made sense of what he was describing. The moon, our moon, was a large bright disk in the sky; Jupiter was a pin prick by comparison. Brighter, certainly, than the other stars, but it was hard to imagine moons revolving around something so insignificant.

Galileo was a revolutionary. His telescope made the universe more enormous than anyone knew, larger than we could imagine, in a word: infinite. You might think this would make God infinitely larger as well, something the church would applaud and advertise. But it was mischievous to change the way people thought of the heavens. Faith doesn't know how to handle adjustments. Faith is supposed to be uniform and unchanging. The Vatican was his employer, and they thanked Galileo by freezing his salary. Eventually they stood him up in front of the Inquisition and had him recant what he knew. Galileo appears six times in A Book of Ages.

When you think about it, most of the great revolutionaries haven't been wild-eyed youths but middle aged men and women. People who've lived long enough to recognize that change is a natural part of how the world operates. People like Rosa Parks and Charles Darwin, Ben Franklin and Galileo precipitated revolutions that endured beyond their own time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A New Year for the Ages

(This essay first appeared in Leite's Culinaria in 2009, where it has been reprised this year.)

Early January has always been a time for rethinking and reinvention. New destinations get mapped out, new partnerships are sealed over lunch. Seed catalogs arrive while the garden is buried under snow. New projects are often dreamed up during the fallow week between Christmas and New Year’s. When nobody is doing business, everyone is planning.

New ventures seem like an especially good topic for this January, with its dramatic sea changes ushered in a year ago. January 2009 saw a new president, a new Congress, a harsh economic winter, and radically shifting circumstances. Our empty larder required all new ingredients. But there’s reason for hope in 2010: As a Chinese philosopher pointed out, crises also present opportunities.

Such opportunities can unfold swiftly, especially when we’re young. On a Christmas ski trip from Paris to Switzerland, Ernest Hemingway lost a suitcase containing all of his early stories; the ones he rewrote (often at tables in Paris cafés) are the ones that made him famous. A lost purse aboard a New York bus changed Carson McCullers’s career plans from concert pianist to author; she was 17. When he was 17, Aristotle Onassis was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Argentina. But not for long. James Beard failed at acting before he turned to cooking for a living. He was 32 when he opened a small catering business in New York in 1935.

Youth is open to new possibilities because everything is possible and nothing is certain. There is so much that has not yet been tried. Robert M. Parker was 20 and spending Christmas in France when he tasted his first glass of wine. Did it make a crucial difference that Alice Waters, when she was 19, transferred from the University of California in Santa Barbara to Berkeley? It was in Berkeley where she opened Chez Panisse in 1971, when she was 27. Often it’s a matter of being at the right place at the right time. When he was 19, film director David Lean had a job serving tea and pastries. The job just happened to be at London’s Gaumont film studio.

New beginnings can happen at any age. Julia McWilliams was well into her thirties before she learned to cook. In 1942 she was living in Washington D.C., in a two-room apartment in the Brighton Hotel, working for the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA. What cooking she did was managed on a hotplate she kept atop the refrigerator in her living room; being 6′2” made this a bit easier. She met fellow spy Paul Child on the veranda of a tea plantation in Ceylon (a perfect place for spies to meet.) Paul introduced her to some of the better things in life, including proper, interesting food. They married, and in November 1948, Mr. and Mrs. Child arrived in France. Her first visit. Somewhere on the road between Le Havre and Paris she had her first French meal: oysters, sole meunière, salad, cheese, and coffee. France changed her life. Her experience of France changed ours.

Necessity and boredom often provide the spur that launches us in new directions. Martha Stewart quit the modeling business when she became a mother at 24. Home and kitchen were a new field, with a new skill-set, a new area of competence. But it would be another eleven years before she became a food maven at 35. Irma Rombauer was 52, a widow, with grown children, when she took a sheaf of old mimeographed recipes to an inn in Charlevoix, Michigan, and began writing a cookbook. In 1930 there were millions of American women who suddenly needed to cook for themselves, by themselves. (One of Rombauer’s helpful instructions: “Stand facing the stove.”) The Joy of Cooking made Rombauer a household name. Alice B. Toklas published her famous cookbook in 1954, when she was 77. She too had been collecting its recipes all her life. Anna Mary Robinson Moses spent many years raising children, putting up preserves and selling homemade butter and potato chips before she took up painting and became famous at age 78. Her first paintings were shown at the county fair in upstate New York; her raspberry jam won a ribbon, but her art did not.

Food is a key ingredient in many creative endeavors. Proust begins A la recherche de temps perdu with a bite of a madeleine, which unleashes the subsequent thousands of pages. Dickens’s first novel also begins around a table. Truman Capote’s most famous story is about breakfast in a place that doesn’t serve breakfast; his best-loved story is about fruitcake. It is significant that Hemingway titled his last book, A Moveable Feast. One of the most important stories in the Bible involves a bite from an apple. Cezanne’s most sublime paintings are of apples and pears, but apples and pears like no apples and pears we’ve ever eaten, as if the artist needed to reinvent the fruit before setting brush to canvas. You could say that cooking was humankind’s first invention, our first improvement on nature, taking raw ingredients and circumstances and making the best we could of them, something enjoyable and worth living for.

Perhaps it’s a good idea to begin the New Year in the kitchen, trying something new. Experimenting, discussing, tasting, attempting, sharing. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

(These stories and many others appear in A Book of Ages, which is an appetizing read for any year.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Motorcycle Diaries

On January 4th, 1952, Che Guevara set out from Buenos Aires on his motorcycle, la Poderosa. He was 23 years old, a child of privilege, a medical student, ambitious, inexperienced, more than a bit naive about motorcycle mechanics and life, but his eyes were wide open. The journey took Che and his companion, 29 year-old biochemist Alberto Granado, to Chile, Peru and over the Andes into Amazonia, where they wound up working at a leper colony. Che Guevara appears five times in A Book of Ages, including the crucial meeting with Fidel Castro, being photographed by Alberto Korda, addressing the United Nations and having dinner with the Rockefellers, and finally being captured and executed in a remote area of Bolivia at age 39.

(A Book of Ages makes a perfect birthday gift for intelligent people of any age, whether they are revolutionaries, monarchists or Republicans. A useful book to take on any journey.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How Old Were You When?

Shirley Temple stopped believing in Santa when her mother took her to see him at a department store and he asked for her autograph. True story. She was six and barely came up to your elbow. You'd never know from her subsequent performances that she'd become a cynical disbeliever, which just shows what a damn good actress she was. It's ironic, though. Hollywood is a dream factory but it makes it harder for us to believe anything. A Book of Ages is full of similar moments of truth. Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, Luther, Einstein, Temple. Rebelieving something is very hard. Galileo tried and it didn't work.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin Milne received a stuffed donkey for Christmas in 1921. He was one year-old and had already received a stuffed bear for his birthday in August. You know the rest of the story. His clever father wrote a book about Christopher Robin and his toys, and then another. They were bestsellers, which embarrassed the boy no end when he went away to school. (The other boys enjoyed chanting "Hush hush, whisper who dares! Christopher Robin is saying his prayers!")

The books, in their fiftieth printing by now, were read to you when you were small, long before you understood the wit. Then you reread them in college. Trying to recapture the innocence of childhood worked as a temporary respite from first semester finals. Christopher Robin eventually grew up. He was wounded in action in World War II, married, and opened a bookstore in Dorset. He later wrote a book about the difficulties of living a famous childhood. He appears six times in A Book of Ages.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Merry Christmas from Richard Nixon

On this day in 1972 President Nixon announced the Christmas bombing of North Vietnamese cities. Nixon appears 12 times in A Book of Ages. That's not counting the times he appears in other people's anecdotes. I'm thinking of Paul Newman discovering he was on the president's enemies list. Nixon spent Christmas 1972 in Florida with his old friend Bebe Rebozo. At the last moment he uninvited loyal acolyte Henry Kissinger who'd planned to join him. Who is invited to whose Christmas party has always been an interesting mark of favor and popularity. As we look back on Christmases past we remember each year by who we were with and how we celebrated, Christmases spent in a war zone far from home or in a balmy climate with friends or stuck in an airport somewhere. When he was 19 George Washington spent Christmas alone, aboard ship returning from Barbados. J. D. Salinger spent his 25th Christmas in deep snow in the Ardennes, fighting the Battle of the Bulge.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

The Simpsons premiered on this day 20 years ago. The first episode, titled "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire", was about the family's Christmas being ruined because Homer didn't receive his Christmas bonus. Which is happening a lot this year, unless you work on Wall Street. I see people nodding their heads in recognition. The Simpsons is one of those cultural touchstones that everybody can relate to. Your life is not remotely like theirs, but then again it is. Partly because the program has been running underneath your experiences for the past twenty years, like the commentary track on a DVD. The Simpsons only appear once in A Book of Ages, and only parenthetically, when George Plimpton (age 75) does a guest shot on the program as a corrupt spelling bee judge. Appearances on the cover of Rolling Stone, or on the Tonight Show or in the Doonesbury comic strip are similarly noted in the book.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Holiday Tea Party

It was on this day in 1773 that Paul Revere and his fellow Sons of Liberty dressed up as Indians, boarded a merchant ship and dumped the cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. If you are picturing a delegation of clear-eyed, well-spoken idealists, think again. This was a mob action pure and simple, however legitimate their grievances were. Likely it was some of the same men who precipitated the Boston Massacre. Remember, John Adams defended the British soldiers charged with firing on that crowd––and won the case.

The origins of our Revolution are complex and not always pretty. Resentment of taxation began it, but once Washington's army was in the field, this same resentment of taxation left his soldiers hungry and barefoot through much of the war. During his second term, President Washington himself rode at the head of an army to put down a tax revolt on the frontier. Which places the Father of Our Country squarely on the side of taxing and spending. He was accused of betraying the principles our country was founded upon. Was he? Washington believed in a strong central government, which is why we stress the first word in our country's name. We are the United States, not a loose association of separate principalities. Washington learned from experience that the union meant something, and it also cost something to run.

It's interesting to consider the ages the founders were when they did these things. Paul Revere was 38 when he led that violent mob. (He didn't fit the profile of your average anarchist. He was a businessman.) John Adams was 34 when he defended the British soldiers who fired on a similar mob. Washington was 62 when he put on his old uniform to assert the government's taxing authority. Each of them appears several times in A Book of Ages, at critical moments in their lives.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Kid in the Choir

Gone with the Wind had its premiere on this day in 1939, at the Leow's Grand Theatre in Atlanta. The theatre front was turned into a plantation mansion for the three-day gala, complete with white pillars. Searchlights filled the sky. Crowds filled the intersection of Peachtree and Pryor. Newsreel cameras caught everything. Clark Gable chatted with the mayor, Vivien Leigh chatted with Margaret Mitchell. And somewhere in the commotion there was a boy's choir with a ten year-old member named Martin Luther King Jr. who probably thought this was the biggest day of his life, the most famous he would ever be. Martin Luther King Jr. appears four times in A Book of Ages. (Margaret Mitchell appears once, and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh don't appear at all.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Story Everybody Read in School

It's Shirley Jackson's birthday today. Born in 1916 in San Francisco, she wrote short stories for the New Yorker and other magazines. One of them made her famous. She was 28 and had recently moved to Vermont with her husband, who taught at Bennington. One morning while she was walking her children to school she thought of a story. By the time she arrived back home it was completed in her head, and she typed it out before the school day was over.

"The Lottery" appeared in the June 26th, 1948 issue of the New Yorker. Her life was never the same again. We all know what the story's about. If you don't I won't ruin it. It became a controversial part of the curriculum in thousands of high school English classes, where it provoked discussions about what human beings are capable of. Arriving as it did, in the aftermath of the war and its atrocities, it made perfect sense, still it floored the comfortable post-war readers who came upon it unawares. It upset their idea of American exceptionalism. "Nothing like that would ever happen in small town America forgodssake." People canceled their subscriptions and wrote angry letters aimed at the author. Many people thought the housewife in the story was going to win a washer-dryer. Imagine their surprise.

I first came across Shirley Jackson in the book catalogs we brought home from junior high. I gave two of her books to my mother for Christmas. "Life Among the Savages" and "Raising Demons" were about Jackson's disordered family life in Vermont. Individual chapters had run in women's magazines. I remember my mom reading them with tears running down her face, laughing. I read them next and they became my guidebook to family life from an adult point of view. She wrote another story I like to read at this time of year: "My Life with R. H. Macy" describes Jackson's short, comical career as a salesperson during the Christmas rush. Shirley Jackson appears one time in A Book of Ages.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Writer's Block

I used to suffer from writer's block. In my twenties I wrote with a bottle of Scotch next to my small, antique Remington, to give me courage. I outgrew that crutch, but remember how it was then: change your mind or make a mistake halfway down a page and the page was ruined. Say what you will about the computer, it has made the exercise easier. The imagination is another thing. Imagination is fickle. So, on Flaubert's birthday, I raise a glass to all those who suffer from creative stoppage. He once said:

"Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph."

It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary. It took me twenty years to write A Book of Ages. (I am not making literary comparisons.) Writing takes time. Successful writers (many of them owners of large oceanside homes and yachts) have compared it to different varieties of torture. Some of them drank to make it easier and the drinking ruined their lives. All of which makes writing sound like a miserable enterprise. Can I help it that I enjoy it? I avoid writer's block by having a few dozen stories running simultaneously. One of them is bound to work on a given day. Poor Flaubert. He appears twice in A Book of Ages, once writing about Emma Bovary and again in an anecdote about Nabokov, who had his Cornell students memorize Emma Bovary's hair-styles.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gone with the Windsors

On this day in 1936 Edward VIII became the Duke of Windsor. The abdication came as an enormous shock to an empire that was already in a precarious condition. Royal doings had no real importance here in America, but the reports were very interesting, especially on some phone exchanges in Upper East Side New York and Palm Beach. The idea that a king would give up his throne and his important job of opening grocery stores and accepting keys to cities to marry an American divorcee, actually a double divorcee. It makes you wonder what marital skills the duchess possessed. It's rumored she was a hermaphrodite (unproven) and a bit of a gymnast (not hard to visualize with that hairdo).

The Duke and Duchess were and remain interesting for being trivial, and A Book of Ages includes many of those small, telling details. For instance, the last thing Edward VIII did as king was have his toenails done. I also chronicle the Duke's flirtation with the Nazis, the number of pieces of luggage he took with him on his sudden escape from France in 1940, his card playing habits, his wife's complaints, the couple's various haunts down the years. He defined the role of "has been", which makes him a useful marker in a book about career arcs.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Emily Dickinson

It's Emily Dickinson's birthday. I always picture a pale woman in sateen dress and a tight bun in an upstairs room comparing hope to a thing with feathers. Am I the only one who sees a facial resemblance to David Byrne? Maybe. She spent most of her later years inside her house in Amherst, but she wrote letters and had friendships. When she was 25 her bread won second prize at the county fair, so she did occasionally venture outdoors. Her personality, though, is preserved in the tightly wrought poems; they are her legacy. An agile mind darting around inside a narrow house. Emily Dickinson appears three times in A Book of Ages.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paradise Lost

Today's John Milton's birthday. Born in 1608, he lived through one monarchy, a revolution, a brief republic, a dictatorship (disguised as a protectorate), then a restoration of monarchy. Being politically active, a political flack in fact, he rose and fell as changes occurred, spending time in favor and then in prison. He was also going blind as surely as Thurber, whose birthday was yesterday. He dictated much of his poetry to assistant Andrew Marvell, who was himself a great poet. Milton wrote Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. For the former landmark in English literature his publisher paid him £10. He also wrote The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (he was unhappily married), which probably means he was no Puritan, despite his allegiances. John Milton appears four times in A Book of Ages.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


It's James Thurber's 115th birthday, which means I'll have to pick up one of my Thurber collections and find something to read before I go to bed. Or bed might be the best place. There is something reassuring about Thurber, almost soporific. His best material explains why you think and behave the way you do, why everybody is so foolish, and why that foolishness is so utterly predictable and repetitive. We work to a pattern and patterns are endlessly amusing.

Half blind from age seven, he was completely blind by the time the New Yorker assigned an eighteen year-old Truman Capote to help him around, which meant helping him visit his mistress during lunch hours. Blindness made him angry and being angry made him unpleasant, but his writing was always graceful and companionable. The reader was his intimate friend, his accomplice, sharing his grudges and mistakes. The interiorness of his world conjured stories to flesh out what he couldn't see.

He was a two way threat, a writer who also drew. Office-mate E. B. White would rescue his doodles out of the wastebasket and put them in the magazine. They were throw-away drawings, but that was their charm. They were transcribed thoughts.

James Thurber appears six times in A Book of Ages.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Day That Will Live In Infamy

Leafing through A Book of Ages, you begin to realize how many lives were changed by the events of that one day. Courses changed, careers delayed or created, stories rewritten.

Churchill gained an ally and Hitler an enemy. The war in Europe had transformed Churchill from a back number into the indispensable leader, and December 7th made it likelier he would prevail, because FDR suddenly had the ability to act. FDR became a war president. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower had a reason to put their boots on. (MacArthur's most recent engagement had been against World War I veterans camped on the Capitol Mall.)

Men at arms were relevant, and thousands of people who never thought of themselves as military men (or women) were put into uniform. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut would write war novels out of the experience. J. D. Salinger's story about a prep school boy named Holden Caulfield was slated to appear in the New Yorker that December. After Pearl Harbor was attacked the editors set it aside for the duration; it suddenly seemed frivolous. Salinger would see action on D-Day and meet Hemingway in Paris, and fight in the Battle of the Bulge. The war would send echoes down through his subsequent work, in characters' disrupted lives and sudden suicides in postwar living rooms.

Hemingway had seen World War I as a teenager; now he was too old to fight, but he outfitted his fishing boat to hunt submarines. In 1944 he single-handedly liberated the Ritz Bar in Paris. Edward R. Murrow became "Edward R. Murrow" reporting on a war that America was half interested in. That too changed. Walter Cronkite cut his journalistic teeth as a war correspondent, and Martha Gellhorn outran most of her male counterparts to get the big story. Her professional rivalry with Hemingway ended their marriage.

Richard Nixon's war was spent playing cards in the Pacific; he won enough from poker to win a seat in Congress. James Michener would write stories about his own experiences in the Pacific, and Rodgers and Hammerstein would make a musical from them. James Stewart enlisted and rose through the ranks to become a bomber pilot over Germany. John Wayne, a near contemporary, made the decision to stay home and play war heroes in movies. Bandleader Glenn Miller lost his life over the English Channel. On FDR's death Harry Truman was transformed from an obscure figure to the most powerful man in the world, burdened with the decision to deploy the atomic bomb. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who marshaled the hundreds of scientists to create that weapon, was dismayed by what he had created. Charles Schulz discovered first-hand how inhuman humanity could be; he would express this cynicism in a comic strip.

The most galvanizing event in American life in the 20th century was triggered by the events of this day 68 years ago on an obscure island in the Pacific. Nobody's life would be the same again.

Friday, December 4, 2009


On December 4th, 1783 George Washington made his famous final farewell to the band of brothers, his officers from the revolutionary army. The farewell became famous because Washington carefully organized all of his public relations. But final? Not really.

The event took place over drinks at Fraunces Tavern, around the corner from Wall Street in lower Manhattan. There's a plaque there. There are at most places Washington ate, drank or slept. The walk away from power is probably the most remarkable item in Washington's biography. Instead of using his adoring army to leverage himself in the new republic, he rode home to Mount Vernon, arriving there on Christmas Eve. He wanted to be a farmer again, or so he said, albeit a farmer whose slaves did the work.

For the past few weeks I've been reading Joseph Ellis's biography of Washington, and the man is a fascinating mixture. Honest but calculating. Wise and naive. Modern, yet bound by ancient Classical forms of behavior and honor. He freed a nation of yeoman farmers but had more in common, philosophically, with the landed aristocrats of England. At the same time he was saying goodbye to his loyal officers, he and they were organizing themselves into an elite club to rule the new nation. They called it the Society of the Cincinnati after Cincinnatus, the general who left his farm to fight for the Roman Republic, then returned to the plow after the war was won. The idea had a noble air about it, but it's motives were self-serving. For one thing, the membership wasn't just exclusive but hereditary.

Washington distanced himself from the group after Jefferson and others explained how bad it looked, even though he didn't quite understand the contradiction. How could anything he'd been involved in be dishonest or ignoble? He was always concerned about appearances, his legacy, his sacred reputation. It's why we have the marble statue today. The picture was so carefully composed it's hard to imagine a person underneath it. It's the contradictions that make him seem human today.

We think of the founding fathers (or some do) as the mythic creators of our national religion, fierce enemies of taxation and elitism. But Washington was elite and proud of it. (He envisioned his vast landholdings beyond the Allegheny being farmed by tenants, which was the European model. One scheme involved bringing in German immigrants to work his land as serfs.) He wasn't a Christian along the lines of modern fundamentalists; he was a child of the Enlightenment, speaking of Providence rather than God, a skeptical agnostic at best. He believed in a strong central government, primarily for the purposes of taxation. He'd spent the entire war feuding and fighting with a "no taxes" crowd in the Congress and the state legislatures. He'd won the war in spite of their refusal to fund the enterprise. Once he was pulled back into public life and made president, one of his most significant acts was to send an army to the frontier to put down a tax revolt. If he were our president today he would be the one sending in the black helicopters.

He presents an interesting and complex picture. I'll never look at a dollar bill the same way again. Washington appears 10 times in A Book of Ages.