From the monthly archives: "June 2013"

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.

The Loathe List is a weekly monthly whenever I have time feature where Joe Steigerwald, erstwhile Stag Blog “hater,” takes on the worst of the media world, and literally disembowels them (figuratively).

Meet Joe Klein: author, journalist, and according to Joe Klein Idiota Google image search, idiot.

Joe Klein enjoys looking smug and possibly playing basketball for the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics in the 1980s. In his spare time he writes “In the Arena” for Time magazine and stumps for the murder of foreign children.

Joe Klein (the writer) is part of a large group of mainstream journalists that pretends to be non-partisan while writing about how great liberals are and how awful and out of touch conservatives are. He’s constantly stumping for the “third way,” an unholy mixture of statism that pulls the worst parts of the political spectrum together under the guise of compromise.

Klein pretends to be a centrist. His Time columns bear headlines like “A Tea Party Test Case: A headstrong conservative faces an Iraq war heroine in a pivotal House race,” “Closing Arguments: We will not jump off the fiscal cliff. We’ll be find despite an unsatisfying campaign,” and “No Labels. No Agenda. Some Hope: Why, in one centrist group, Republicans and Democrats are talking to each other.” Nothing there screams “I’m a dirty liberal with an ax to grind,” but even a cursory glance at his writing reveals the true Joe Klein: a dirty liberal who indeed has an ax to grind.

Klein’s November 12 column “Closing Arguments,” in which he wraps up the 2012 Presidential campaign, is the perfect example of his writing style and reveals Klein’s true ideological identity. He sets up the column with what sounds like a moderate, even balanced approach, writing:

Barack Obama’s inspirational whoosh to the presidency in 2008 was unusual. Most campaigns are less exhilarating; indeed, they are downright disappointing–until someone wins. Then, suddenly, it becomes “clear” that one candidate magically understood and responded to the needs of the electorate and that his team of strategists were, ahem, geniuses. But in the days just before a closely contested election like this one, the missed opportunities and tactical blunders seem painfully obvious on both sides. The pettiness and lack of substance are suffocating. Has this year been particularly awful? It certainly seems so now, especially as the devastating truth of Hurricane Sandy beggars a campaign in which major issues like climate change were either ignored or denied by both sides.

Besides the explicit tying of global warming to Hurricane Sandy, he toes a centrist line. He rails against both sides’ “missed opportunities and tactical blunders.” But after reading the next two paragraphs, all you can think of is how hard it was for Klein to abstain from slobbering over Obama for an entire 15 seconds.

The President has run a tactical, largely negative campaign, more concerned with Romney’s weaknesses than with the strength of his own record. It is almost as if his victories–with the exception of Osama bin Laden’s death and the auto bailout–were too technical or abstract to explain. His various economic moves in early 2009 prevented another Great Depression, but on the advice of his consultants, Obama isn’t even using the word stimulus anymore because it’s too controversial. His health care plan represented not just a moral step forward but also a path to lower prices–especially for small businesses–and a reform of a wasteful medical system, but it hasn’t been implemented yet, and it has been demagogued to near death by the Republicans.

In fact, the President has bought the basic Republican assumption: that the public loathes government action. This has severely limited his ability to talk about his plans for the next four years, even though the libertarian trope is a delusion easily refuted. The federal response to the hurricane is Exhibit A; just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And Obama’s failure, or unwillingness, to make the case for his essentially moderate vision of governance has raised major questions about his continuing ability to lead the nation.

You can actually see the drool marks on the pages of the magazine. Where to even begin? Klein’s biggest complaints are a “largely negative campaign” and that Obama is “… more concerned with Romney’s weaknesses than with the strength of his own record.” Hey Hammer, don’t hurt ’em. And that’s the end of the negatives for Mr. Obama.

To summarize:

Obama’s failures:

  1. Tactical, largely negative campaign
  2. Failure to make the case for his moderate vision of governance

Obama’s victories:

  1. Killed Osama Bin Laden
  2. Bailed out the auto industry
  3. Saved country from another Great Depression
  4. Health plan represents a moral step forward, lower prices for businesses and a reform of a wasteful health system

That’s it. In a piece that’s set up as a look at the failures of both campaigns we get two mealy, halfhearted criticisms of Obama and four accolade’s that if true would place him atop of the pantheon of greatest Presidents of all time. Let’s look again at the previous two paragraphs, this time with with the slobbering removed.

The President has run a tactical, largely negative campaign, more concerned with Romney’s weaknesses than with the strength of his own record. It is almost as if his victories–with the exception of Osama bin Laden’s death and the auto bailout–were too technical or abstract to explain. His various economic moves in early 2009 prevented another Great Depression, but  on the advice of his consultants, Obama isn’t even using the word stimulus anymore because it’s too controversial. His health care plan represented not just a moral step forward but also a path to lower prices–especially for small businesses–and a reform of a wasteful medical system, but it hasn’t been implemented yet, and it has been demagogued to near death by the Republicans.

In fact, the President has bought the basic Republican assumption: that the public loathes government action. This has severely limited his ability to talk about his plans for the next four years, even though the libertarian trope is a delusion easily refuted. The federal response to the hurricane is Exhibit A; just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And Obama’s failure, or unwillingness, to make the case  for his essentially moderate vision of governance has raised major questions about his continuing ability to lead the nation.

Apparently Joe just needed to add to his word count and without anything negative to say, he had to fill the article with Obama’s virtues instead.

Okay, so maybe Klein is just a teddy bear, he talks tough, but really he’s just an ol’ softie. Hopefully he extends the same charity to Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney hasn’t made much of a case for himself either, and his quick-change policy reversals, false claims and false advertising raise serious questions about whether he has the character and constancy to be President. In the week before the election, he put up an insultingly false ad about the President’s record on the auto bailout. He claimed that Obama had “sold Chrysler to Italians” who were sending Jeep jobs to China. Chrysler immediately repudiated this. The truth is, Chrysler is adding Jeep jobs in the U.S. and, given its resurgence here, may boost Jeep production in China for Chinese consumption. This sort of ad seems particularly galling given the fact that Romney opposed the auto bailout and has spent his whole business career embedded in the global economy, selling companies to the “Italians,” or whomever, so that they could send jobs to “China,” or wherever. It is rare to find a candidate so willing to repudiate his life’s work.

I suspect that Ohioans, who are legitimately grateful to the President for saving the auto industry, will see past the arrant cynicism of Romney’s ad. But perhaps they won’t. The Romney campaign’s assumption from the start–from its very first television ad, a sleazy attempt to pin John McCain’s 2008 reluctance to “talk about the economic crisis” as something Obama said more recently–was that it could get away with practically anything, including the full-body transformation of its candidate in the debates from severe conservative to warmhearted moderate. Given the closeness of the election, who can say Romney’s gamble hasn’t paid off?

Republicans will say Obama has been every bit as cynical as Romney, and there have been moments when the Obama campaign has been less than heroic. But we need to be clear about this: there is nothing close to moral equivalency here. The Romney campaign has indulged in many of the worst fantasies promulgated by the GOP’s wingnuts, from the Obama “apology tour,” which never happened, to blatant misrepresentations of Obamacare and the President’s Middle East policy, to the constant undertow of implication that the President is not quite American enough.

Okay, so maybe not. Not that Romney was beyond reproach. Klein could have dedicated an entire column to Romney’s shortcomings and called it “Why I’m Voting for Obama”, but that would have given away his actual political position. Instead Klein sets up his column as a look into an unsatisfying campaign, with himself as merely an observer writing from a position of impassioned non-partisanship. He never explicitly picks Romney or Obama, yet as soon as he begins writing about them he cannot help himself. Romney — who was arguably more moderate than Obama — gets excoriated at every turn for his campaign. Obama’s only faults are that he can’t make America understand how great he is.

This kind of writing is the gold standard in mainstream publications. Liberal writers are accepted as average. Their views are considered normal, unexceptional, the standard. Conservatives on the other hand are always labeled as such. In Klein’s article  “A Tea Party Test Case: A headstrong conservative faces an Iraq war heroine in a pivotal House race”, the headline looks innocuous, but the bias is there. There is no labeling of the Democratic opponent; she is an Iraq war vet and a heroine. The Republican incumbent is a “headstrong conservative.”

This is Klein’s shtick, and it is repeated in every single column; play the impartial observer, then blame conservatives for all of America’s problems. He is a shill for the Democrat party and an apologist for Obama. His February 25 Time column “Aiming Low, Missing Greatness” tries to blame Obama’s opponents across the aisle for preventing him from rising to greatness and implementing his glorious liberal programs.

But what do you expect from a man who swore on his journalistic integrity that he didn’t write the book Primary Colors?

So carry on Joe Klein, keep writing your love letters to your liberal agenda. Keep pretending to be above the fray, a man unencumbered by bias, or political labels. Keep lying to yourself and to the unfortunate ever shrinking readership of Time.

Klein, you’re a partisan wolf in sensible centrist sheep’s clothing, and I’m happy to make you the opening entry of the “Loathe List.”

In closing,

joeklein

 

 

 

 

 

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. In spite of refrains — at least half a dozen at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Arts Festival alone — of his status as a “living legend,” Stanley is 86 years old and frail. One half of the first-generation-of-bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers, as well as a solo artist in his own right, Stanley might have just a few years left in him. He already can’t play his famous clawhammer-style banjo. On Saturday, his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, gave Stanley a lyrics sheet so he could remember the words to “Angel Band”, a song which someone in the crowd requested. A song he must have sung hundreds of times.

Earlier in the show, Stanley called Nathan, his grandson, and the technical lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys, “Ralph Stanley Jr.” Nathan quickly corrected him, saying “I’m your Grandson” and made it clear to the crowd that the rest of the band also knew that this was Pittsburgh (woooo!) and not “somewhere in Ohio?” as Ralph mumbled or inquired as if he didn’t much care. (I know I didn’t).

The Clinch Mountain Boys do carry Stanley. They play lots of songs that highlight their impressive playing and singing, especially Nathan’s a-little-too-smooth style. (Nobody was smooth like Ralph’s late brother Carter, who was silk and butter, but not shiny, uncomfortable vinyl. Carter drank himself to death in 1966).

Christened in his childhood church days — Primitive Baptist, so services only allowed vocals, no musical instruments — as “ the boy with the hundred-year-old voice,” Stanley may not reach the century mark that would officially grant him having grown into that voice. Yet his age and stature surely make more sense when you hear him sing now. And he can sing.

When Stanley sang “Rank Stranger,” I got that elusive, hair-raising feeling that goes beyond just being happy to be there listening. It came when Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua sang “River of Jordan” in the Little Grill in Harrisonburg, VA last year. I felt a ghost of it when my friends Jason and Stephen played and harmonized on “Little Birdie” last summer. But the Stanley Brothers’ arrangement on “Rank Stranger” is something else.  In their version — and the Clinch Mountain Boys echoed this on Saturday — Carter starts clear and strong, “I wandered again/ to my home in the mountains….” Ralph is faintly harmonizing here, but first it’s all Carter on display. His voice is classic country, but not unpleasantly so. He’s sad, earnest, warm — and then Ralph takes the second verse with “everybody I met seems to be a rank stranger” and his eerie, ancient voice brings the song to an entirely different place. The contrast in the brothers’ vocals — familiar and unearthy together — hits your spine, your knees, everywhere.

There’s a reason, you see, that this Oxford American poem from the point of view of God says “I have… a voice like Ralph Stanley.”

That voice is not as strong as it was at his peak, but it’s still there, that high droning power. While Stanley sang “Rank Stranger” I just clutched at the hem of my dress and felt so happy I could melt. In those moments, I want nothing, and it’s wonderful.

He sang “Little Maggie,” and “Mountain Dew,” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and other Stanley standbys, too. He didn’t need the lyrics sheet again.

And then he sang “O Death.”

The acapella version from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack won Stanley a Grammy in 2002 and cemented his place in the history of country music. He earned that decades before, but the delighted reaction to the song — a dirge straight from the hills of Appalachia with unknown origin — is entirely justified. But it’s still strange that it’s so popular. The lyrics, addressed to death, are frightening to anyone who has suffered a moment of existential angst. I don’t like to listen to it very often. I don’t want to sap it of its power. Also it’s really scary.

At the Art’s Festival, when Stanley began “Death/O Death/Won’t you spare me over for another year,” my only concrete thought was a prayer; let people — for once — shut up. There were some “woooo” and “owww” sounds at the start, but I was in the front and in my earshot people shushed the loud folks. For most of the song, most of the people were silent.

In fact, I have never heard that powerful a silence at a concert. The palpable quality of the hush reminded me of the graveyard near my grandmother’s cabin in Montana. The graveyard has a dozen or so folks buried, many of whom had  only wooden headstones. Those names are now rubbed away. All ten or 12 individuals — including a baby lastname, and a man with a great ghost story/cautionary tale about not taking a dead man’s remains — were all buried in the late 19th century. They died of diphtheria, and they were tucked away in the mountains to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s a strange place, almost pine forest again. The old fence is almost rotted back into the earth. Nature is winning over man, and that provokes big, scary thoughts on being human when you visit. But it’s also a beautiful spot to spend forever, even if your forever means only your bones in the ground. That graveyard also contains the biggest, loudest quiet I have ever heard. The air of the place seems charged (“the very air come and go with me”). I grant that this feeling may come from my own head. I still feel it in my body each time I go there.

That’s what I thought of when Ralph Stanley sang “O Death.”

Ralph, whose hand I shook after the show (I gushed a thank you, and a “you made my whole year!” He might have smiled a little, he certainly thanked me) got a lot of response from that uptight, Pittsburgh crowd. He stood for the whole hour and a half show, even though a chair rested on stage if he had needed it. His face was solemn, which he apparently always was even as a young, shy man. (He used to let Carter talk to the fans.) He mostly clasped his hands like a boy in church, as he waited for his turn to sing.

He tried to demonstrate the old clawhammer power on “Shout Little Lulu.” That was the very first song he learned — his mother taught it to him. On Saturday he had it, then he lost it, and the band, all full of love, covered for him as best they could. And we in the crowd cheered for him. When we kept clapping and encoring, he thanked us all and blew earnest kisses.

Ralph Stanley is not immortal. Ralph Stanley is fading away, as we all will if we’re very lucky.

Ralph Stanley is not a living legend because he is old. You don’t clap for Ralph Stanley because you are kind. He is not a feeble relative to watch over and encourage like a child. You applaud because you are selfishly grateful that Ralph Stanley is here to carry all this music with him. He’s carries it for us, and he has enough of it to give. He calls his grandson his son, and his fingers aren’t nimble enough for the banjo, but on stage he can still go back to his boyhood, Primitive Baptist Church days and stand, hands neatly folded, and do what he was born to do.

Make fun of Rush Limbaugh all you want.

But this rant of his about government snooping and what he calls “the Obama Coup”  was spoken, not written, and it’s impressive.

Too bad Rushbo didn’t/doesn’t realize the government snooping problem is not just an Obama thing or a liberal Democrat thing.

It’s the result of the incredible power conservatives and liberals have given to the federal government and the way the federal government can be used by either party of assholes to do all kinds of bad stuff to individuals.

Too bad Rush and the other conservatives were in the tank for Bush for eight years.

And too bad Rush (and the NY Times and Fox and the WSJ and all the other media fucks who have no balls or brains) bought into the post-9/11 terrorism hysteria that has given the creeps in Washington the excuse to stomp on the Constitution and turn the country into a security state.

This bipartisan snooping by the assholes in DC is not new, just bigger and computerized.