Quite the World, Isn't It?
April 27, 2010
The latest wrinkle in the legacy of historian Stephen Ambrose leaves me flat out cold. He was a good writer and storyteller, and was rightly appreciated for making some of the narratives of the past resonate for a wide audience. As a writer of (not) popular (enough) history myself, he has done some good things.
But the veneer faded fast.
Ambrose died of cancer in 2002, and while he was still alive he was accused of plagiarism, a practice he effectively admitted, apologized for, and wrote off as faulty sourcing rather than intentional theft. Those transgressions didn't indict the work -- just the lineage of the facts. But then veterans who were portrayed in some of his World War Two works complained that he had misrepresented their stories. That nudges up to the line of indicting the veracity of the work.
Not The New Yorker reports that Ambrose apparently invented out of thin air lengthy face-to-face interviews with Eisenhower -- interviews that Ambrose used in his defining biographies of the former five-star general and two-term president.
That's a much more serious transgression, one, I'm sad to say, that indicts the work. It's one thing to "borrow" the works of others. It's more problematic to have your sources say you got fundamental things wrong.
But it's a fatal mistake to knowingly make stuff up. I fail my students for these transgressions. And in this case, we have to say: Ambrose = epic fail
April 25, 2010
We're spending a couple of days at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where I'm doing some blog coverage for the LAT and hosted a panel yesterday -- which was interesting, and great fun.
The topic of my panel was Literary Biography, and the panelists authored works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain, though the Twain book is as much about personal assistant Isabel Lyon as it is about the last years of the venerated American icon.
The challenge was finding common ground among the subjects so that the authors -- Carol Sklenicka (Carver), Michael Scammell (Koestler) and Laura Skandera Trombley (Twain) -- could engage with each other. They managed quite nicely, offering some fine insights into their work, and their subjects, to an audience that filled about two-thirds of the seats and an auditorium in the Humanities Building at UCLA. And it was a gorgeous day for it, too, in the upper 60s with blue skies and a nice breeze.
We talked a bit about the struggles to find the truth in the letters and journals of people who are very conscious -- and concerned -- about their places in literary history. Trombley said she had to be particularly careful because Twain was such an unabashed liar. Sklenicka had to sweet-talk still-protective friends and relatives of Carver, who died at age 50 in 1988, into sharing memories and material. For Scammell, it was a matter of vetting the details in Koestler's two autobiographies. I wasn't taking notes so can't quote, but Scammell said he was surprised to learn how truthful Koestler's works were, good bad and ugly (though Koestler had a propensity for not including some of the uglier stuff).
You may remember that I profiled Trombley for the LA Times a few weeks back, and it was a great pleasure to see and talk with her again -- smart, poised and interesting (traits that likely helped her ascend to the president's office at Pitzer College).
Key highlight of taking part in the Festival -- meeting and chatting with so many smart, intelligent lovers of books. And the people who write them.
April 20, 2010
It was 96 years ago this morning that a gunfight broke out between the Colorado National Guard and striking coal miners at Ludlow, the small railroad town in Southern Colorado where the United Mine Workers union decided to build its main tent colony during the 1913-14 strike.
By the end of the day, some 20 people were dead, including 11 children and two mothers who were hiding in a makeshift maternity chamber dug from the prairie and covered by a wooden-floored tent. What led to the deaths is murky - my research led me to conclude the National Guard intentionally torched the camp, not knowing the women and children were hiding below ground. But the overall culpability is clear as the miners in effect revolted under a corrupt political and economic system.
It behooves us occasionally to pause and contemplate the path to the present. Eight-hour work days, safety regulations and a mechanism to pursue grievances and other "givens" of the modern era weren't just handed down from on high by paternal owners and bosses. They were won through bloody encounters like Ludlow, where the dead women and children accounted for only a portion of the 75 or more people killed in that guerrilla war of a strike.
Change never comes easily. It takes strength, commitment, and a sense of the world larger than a single person's prism. And given what happened in West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, you have to wonder whether there has been enough change.
April 8, 2010
So the news today that Malcolm McLaren had died caught me a bit by surprise, though I guess it shouldn't have. I'm at the age where the key pop figures from youth start keeling over from natural causes (in this case, apparently, cancer).
As word of McLaren's death grew, I tossed on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" and filled the house with jarring guitar and Johnny Rotten's petulant sneer -- much to the annoyance of my 16-year-old son. He wasn't complaining that it was too-tame oldies music, but that it was too annoying (he's a jazz and blues guy). You have to love the irony of the teen telling the parent to turn that noise down, but there it was.
And it reminded me of the time I interviewed John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, in 1994, when I was working at The Detroit News (one of my "mini-beats" was covering punk and alternative rock). It was by phone, tied to an upcoming Public Image Limited tour. He was a bit stunned when I asked him about the then-looming 20th anniversary of the Sex Pistols -- until then, he said, it hadn't registered on him that it had been that long. I also asked him the innocuous, evergreen question about what music he was listening to, and whether any current punk bands stood out.
That set him off on a riff about the state of pop music, which he thought was poor, and at the end he compared the then-new bands as "just so many cows farting." I laughed out loud, then asked if he had ever heard cows farting. "No," he said, "but I have heard Pink Floyd."
Ah, Johnny Rotten, why are you being so rotten?*
*go to the 1:17:40 mark, near the end, at Punk Rock, The Movie, linked above.