Posts Tagged 'martin amis'

A tinge of regret.

Ron Charles, Washington Post book critic, in an article I quoted already a couple weeks ago:

As Confederate statues tumble across the United States, TV networks are marching through their catalogues and looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon – more shocking with each new announcement. Just in recent weeks, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from The Office, Community, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Saturday Night Live.

It would be interesting to time-travel back to the mid-2000s, when The Office, Community, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were still on the air, and inform their writers that in a decade or so their attempts at racial levity would be considered so “shocking” that they must be hidden away from sensitive viewers’ sight.

It would be more interesting still if we could summon a time traveller from ten years hence to tell us which of today’s critically-acclaimed, widely-beloved shows were destined for the scrapheap of “racially offensive” material. [1]

joey lawrence gimme a break

Joey Lawrence in Gimme A Break! Image source: Mediaite.

I recall as a child in the 1980s being confused by the episode of the sitcom Gimme A Break! where the teenage daughter, angry at her housekeeper and substitute mother-figure Nell Carter, took elaborate revenge by tricking her little brother into performing a blackface dance routine at Nell’s church. This led to Nell sitting the kids down for an earnest talk about racism.

I asked my babysitter to explain what the big deal was, but her answer wasn’t very coherent. I concluded that blackface was bad because it made nice black church ladies unhappy.

Nevertheless, it was routine in the 1980s, and for many years afterward, for white comedians to slap on brown makeup to impersonate Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder or Sammy Davis, just as they’d slap on sideburns and a fat suit for Elvis.

It didn’t occur to me – or, I’m pretty sure, the performers involved – that these impersonations would someday be damned as “blackface”. It’s only in the last decade or so that the new taboo against casting white people in non-white roles bumped up against the much older blackface taboo to retroactively toxify a whole swathe of previously innocent performances.

However, while the impersonators weren’t trying to be insulting, at least they weren’t specifically flaunting their racial enlightenment. The other category of “rediscovered” scenes newly targeted for removal we might call ironic blackface: scenes meant to illustrate the ignorance of white people who would participate in blackface, like the authoritarian weirdo Dwight Schrute in The Office, or the self-absorbed actress Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock, or the alcoholic dirtbags of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

(As a more recent example, there’s the Washington, D.C. woman who was publicly berated, and later lost her job, over a Halloween costume that mocked TV pundit Megyn Kelly for her comments about blackface.)

I enjoy many of the shows above. Still, I chuckle when I think of their hip, well-educated white writers sneering at their characters’ Neanderthal attitudes – only to find themselves tumbled into the cave with their creations.

Now, I try not to get too worked up about taboos. Every society has them, they’re usually not that hard to follow, and even the illogical ones may serve some important solidarity-building function. Some of us oldsters are having a bit of trouble adjusting to the new taboos because we grew up during an era where the old ones – like those against blasphemy, gay intimacy, and interracial relationships – were crumbling, while the new ones were still being applied in a moderate way. Everyone in the 1980s understood that you shouldn’t use “the n-word” as a racial slur, but nobody held it against you when you quoted a third party using it.

The blackface taboo hasn’t yet gone as far as the “n-word” taboo: as far as I can tell, no-one has gotten in trouble for merely publishing a photo of a person in blackface to illustrate a news article or blog post.

And yet if the mere sight of “the n-word” is triggering to the Woke, wouldn’t the photographs adorning the Wikipedia entry on blackface be equally triggering? For that matter, is it possible that the mere description of blackface could at some point in the not-too-very-distant future be made taboo?

Whipple and the white man.

rex stout too many cooks

In Rex Stout’s novel Too Many Cooks, from 1938, the gourmand private detective Nero Wolfe abandons the comforts of his New York home to attend a gathering of the world’s greatest chefs at a luxury hotel in rural West Virginia. Predictably, one of the chefs ends up with a carving knife in his back.

An eyewitness reports that she glimpsed one of the hotel’s black waiters standing near the alcove where the body was found, raising his finger to his lips, as if to shush another black waiter who was peering in from the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the witness can’t identify either waiter, so Wolfe assembles the whole serving staff in his hotel room for questioning. They are respectful but nervously uncooperative. The detective believes they are shielding the murderer out of racial solidarity:

“You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them. If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black—”

“You’re wrong!”

The source of the interruption is a young waiter named Whipple, a college student who chafes at West Virginia’s racial etiquette; the headwaiter has already reprimanded him for not referring to Wolfe as “sir”.

Wolfe said, “I think I can justify my position, Mr. Whipple. If you’ll let me complete—”

“I don’t mean your position. You can have your logic. I mean your facts. One of them.”

Wolfe lifted his brows. “Which one?”

“The complexion of the murderer.” The college boy was looking him straight in the eye. “He wasn’t a black man. I saw him. He was a white man.”

…Or rather, at the time Whipple saw the man, he wasn’t precisely white:

“Do you think I can’t tell burnt cork from the real thing? I’m a black man myself. But that wasn’t all. As you said, he was holding his finger against his lips, and his hand was different. It wouldn’t have taken a black man to see that. He had on tight black gloves.”

Whipple explains to the skeptical Wolfe why he didn’t come clean earlier:

“Because I’ve learned not to mix up in the affairs of the superior race. If it had been a colored man I would have told. Colored men have got to stop disgracing their color and leave that to white men. You see how good your logic was.”

“But my dear sir. That doesn’t impugn my logic, it merely shows that you agree with me. We must discuss it some time. Then you withheld this fact because you considered it white men’s business and none of yours, and you knew if you divulged it you’d be making trouble for yourself.”

“Plenty of trouble. You’re a northerner—“

And indeed, Whipple’s reticence is justified by the local sheriff’s reaction – a string of racist insults and threats – when Wolfe brings him forward to share the story he’d previously concealed.

The ziggaboo jock.

It’s pretty clear that Nero Wolfe’s declaration that “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded” reflected the views of his creator – civil libertarian, co-founder of the radical Vanguard Press, critic of the “myth of national sovereignty”, Rex Stout.

But Stout’s narrator, Wolfe’s regular-joe assistant Archie, is less ostentatiously enlightened: he sees no harm in jocularly referring to the hotel’s serving staff as “those blackbirds”. (His employer enquires whether “by blackbirds you mean men with dark skin”. Archie clarifies: “I mean Africans”.)

In the title story of Damon Runyon’s 1935 collection Money From Home, the unnamed narrator exercises a far more unrestrained vocabulary of racial slurs: “boogie”, “jig”, “smoke”, “smudge”, “dinge”, “coon”, and of course, “ziggaboo”. [2]

damon runyon omnibus

As the columnist Heywood Broun put it in the introduction to Runyon’s most famous book, Guys and Dolls:

He has caught with a high degree of insight the actual tone and phrase of the gangsters and racketeers of this town. Their talk is put down almost literally. Of course, like any artist, Damon Runyon has exercised the privilege of selectivity. But he has not heightened or burlesqued the speech of the people who come alive in his short stories.

Eddie Yokum, the hapless protagonist of “Money From Home”, by a series of unwise choices finds himself dressed in a stolen fox-hunting outfit, impersonating a visiting English aristocrat, and wanted by the law on a charge of dognapping.

Here he’s cowering in the furnace room of a snooty country club, wondering how to make his escape, when he remembers the time he knocked ’em dead in the Elks’ minstrel show with his imitations of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor:

The idea is to black up his face right there and walk out to safety, because Eddie figures that anybody who sees him is bound to take him as an employee of the furnace-room, so he peeks into the furnace, and finds a lot of soot, and he makes his face blacker than a yard up a chimney.

Moreover, Eddie gets another break when he finds a suit of blue overalls left by some guy who works in the furnace-room, and also an old cap, and when he sneaks out the door a little later, he is nothing but a boogie, as far as anybody can see, and not a very clean boogie, at that …

Unfortunately for Eddie, when he emerges from the furnace room he runs into the very Englishman he had been impersonating, who tipsily insists upon leading the black man onto the dance floor and “presenting him to the crowd as a bit of real Southern atmosphere”. So Eddie has no choice but to break out the minstrel act that brought him fame at the Elks’ Club.

Eventually Eddie bows his way offstage and makes his getaway. But his adventures aren’t over. Some days later, attending the big steeplechase at New York’s Belmont Park, with the hope of getting near the beautiful heiress whose charms got him into this whole mess in the first place, Eddie hears that his dream girl is in a pickle:

“There is a rumour that Miss Phyllis Richie’s nigger jockey, Roy Snakes, is off on a bender, or something to this effect. Anyway, they say he is missing, and if they cannot find him, or get another jig jock, they will have to scratch Follow You, because no white guy alive can ride Follow You in a race.”

It seems that Miss Richie’s enemies, knowing that her horse Follow You is a racist who will violently unseat any white rider who dares to mount him, have arranged for every black jockey in New York to be out of commission.

It occurs to Eddie that he can save the day, and win Miss Richie’s heart, with the help of some burnt cork :

Well, all the time Eddie Yokum is blacking up, he is saying every prayer he knows that Roy Snakes or one of the other dinge jockeys appears to ride Follow You, but no such thing happens, and by and by Eddie is out in the Richie colors, and is as black as anything, and maybe blacker, and while Follow You gives him quite a snuffing over when Eddie approaches him, the horse seems satisfied he is dealing with a smoke, and afterwards some people claim this is a knock to the way Eddie smells.

Having no experience as a rider, plus a severe fear of horses, Eddie falls off Follow You at every jump. But thanks to the treachery of their crooked jockeys, every other horse in the race is eventually disqualified, and despite Follow You’s growing exasperation at having to take every jump twice, the way is clear for him to win, if Eddie can just coax him over the finish line.

The trouble is that with all the sweat pouring down our hero’s brow, not to mention landing face-first in the water jump, he isn’t looking quite so black as when the race began, and the horse is starting to have his suspicions…

Blackface Bertie.

p.g. wodehouse thank you jeeves

When in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 novel Thank You, Jeeves Bertie Wooster finds it necessary to disguise himself as a black man, the urgency of the situation rules out the burning of cork. Luckily Bertie’s unflappable valet has had the foresight to bring along a tin of boot polish:

“The scheme carries your personal guarantee?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you say you have the stuff handy?”

“Yes, sir.”

I flung myself into a chair and turned the features ceilingwards.

“Then start smearing, Jeeves,” I said, “and continue to smear till your trained senses tell you that you have smeared enough.”

The chain of events leading up to this crisis begins with Bertie, ejected from his London flat over banjolele-related noise complaints, taking a cottage on the estate of his old school chum, the cash-poor Baron Chuffnell, AKA Chuffy. Part of the attraction of this locale is the presence of a troupe of coloured minstrels in the nearby village, who, Bertie hopes, might be induced to impart banjolele tips.

The local police sergeant takes a jaundiced view of these entertainers:

“Chuffnell Regis is going down. I would never have thought to have seen a troupe of minstrels singing comic songs within a stone’s-throw of my police station.”

“You view them with concern?”

“There’s been fowls missing,” said Sergeant Voules darkly. “Several fowls. And I have my suspicions.”

Meanwhile Chuffy is attempting to unload Chuffnell Hall on a rich American in order to acquire the funds to marry said American’s daughter, Pauline – who is, as it happens, Bertie’s ex-fiancée. Misunderstandings ensue, culminating in Bertie’s imprisonment on the rich American’s yacht, threatened with forced marriage to Pauline. Luckily the minstrels happen to be aboard the yacht to provide entertainment at a birthday party, and Jeeves devises his scheme to sneak Bertie ashore amid their number.

The plan goes off without a hitch, as Jeeves’ plans generally do, and Bertie flits to pack for the next train to London, leaving his man behind to cover the traces of his escape. Alas, before he can acquire the necessary butter to remove the boot polish from his face, Bertie is chased from his own cottage by a drunken servant who mistakes the black-faced intruder for the devil. Later, at the service entrance to Chuffnell Hall, a scullery maid falls into a fit upon seeing him, believing him to be a spirit that she has summoned with her Ouija board.

Hunted and friendless, wondering where he can scrounge a supply of butter, Bertie skulks among the bushes, reflecting that,

I had never realized before what an important part one’s complexion plays in life.

As Martin Amis once wrote of the comic gauntlet of “bust-ups, alarms, duplicities and misapprehensions” with which Wodehouse’s upper class twits must contend:

The fact that these pitfalls, when translated to the burly contingencies of real life, can cause genuine hurts and fears merely strengthens the glow of innocuousness. Wodehouse loved to play on the genial insensitivity to suffering that centuries of thoughtless privilege produce. [3]

Innocent and insolent.

Martin Amis’ father Kingsley once anointed G.K. Chesterton’s amiable amateur sleuth Father Brown as one of the “three great successors of Sherlock Holmes”. (Nero Wolfe was another.) [4]

If the Father Brown stories had a weakness, Amis went on, it was not, as some critics had complained, that they were “Roman Catholic propaganda”:

It would be truer to say that what propaganda there is gets directed against atheism, complacent rationalism, occultism and superstition, all those shabby growths which the decline of Christian belief has fostered … My only real complaint is that this bias sometimes reveals the villain too early. We know at once that the prophet of a new sun cult is up to no good, and are not surprised that it is he who allows a blind girl to step to her death in an empty lift shaft. [5]

Atheists and non-Christians of various stripes might legitimately complain that Chesterton has treated them unfairly. But only one of the Father Brown stories strikes me as genuinely offensive (and we’ve established by now that I’m not all that easy to offend).

g.k. chesterton the wisdom of father brown

“The God of the Gongs”, from the 1914 collection The Wisdom of Father Brown, begins with the little priest and his brawny friend Flambeau strolling on a bleak winter day along the abandoned strand of an English seaside town. In apparent idleness Father Brown hops onto the stage of a wooden bandstand, and promptly falls through a rotten spot in the floor. Exploring the dark spaces beneath, he stumbles on something disturbing – a corpse, we deduce, though he is characteristically vague in explaining his discovery to Flambeau.

Next he steers his friend to a nearby inn, where the proprietor is curiously inhospitable to his guests, and even more curiously deferential to his bellowing black cook. Flambeau takes an instant dislike to this cook, who is also the famed prizefighter “Nigger Ned”, on his way to a bout:

He was buttoned and buckled up to his bursting eyeballs in the most brilliant fashion. A tall black hat was tilted on his broad black head … The red flower stood up in his buttonhole aggressively, as if it had suddenly grown there. And in the way he carried his cane in one hand and his cigar in the other there was a certain attitude—an attitude we must always remember when we talk of racial prejudices: something innocent and insolent—the cake walk.

“Sometimes,” said Flambeau, looking after him, “I’m not surprised that they lynch them.”

“I am never surprised,” said Father Brown, “at any work of hell.”

In another Chesterton story, when a hot-tempered Arab is accused of killing an Englishman who had insulted him, the clear-sighted Father Brown recognizes that it is another Englishman who has opportunistically pinned the crime on the foreigner. [6] Encountering the foppish prizefighter for the first time, we assume that he is likewise going to be a red herring; especially when the hotel proprietor whips out a dagger and attempts to murder Father Brown.

But no: like the suspicious sun-cultist mentioned by Amis, the insolent black man is in fact up to no good. Escaping the homicidal innkeeper, Father Brown and Flambeau make their way to the site of the prizefight, where the priest approaches the promoter and explains (with reference to a “book of old travels” which he happens to have in his pocket, describing certain obscure Jamaican folkways) that his star attraction is the chief priest of a secret society of voodoo assassins, and the boxing match the diversion during which one of their ritual killings will occur.

With his secret society exposed, “Nigger Ned” vanishes, leading to a countrywide manhunt that makes no concessions to our notions of civil liberties:

[F]or a month or two the main purpose of the British Empire was to prevent the buck nigger (who was so in both senses) escaping by any English port. Persons of a figure remotely reconcilable with his were subjected to quite extraordinary inquisitions, made to scrub their faces before going on board ship, as if each white complexion were made up like a mask of greasepaint. Every negro in England was put under special regulations and made to report himself; the outgoing ships would no more have taken a nigger than a basilisk.

(No doubt many reader will be puzzled, as I was, by Chesterton’s reference to “both senses” of the phrase “buck nigger”. My Webster’s informs me that in addition to meaning a “bold, lively, vigorous” young man – “sometimes a contemptuous or patronizing term as applied to a young black or Indian male” – “buck” has an archaic second meaning of “fop or dandy”.)

Modern opinion would find the many instances of “the n-word” the most alarming aspect of this story, but my impression is that in Britain the word was accepted in polite society for some years after it had become taboo in the United States: Chesterton uses it more or less as an informal synonym for “negro”, much as he might use “Yankee” for “American”.

What troubles me is that Chesterton seems not to balk at the racist methods he ascribes to the police in hunting up the escaped cult leader. Ordinarily we can rely on Father Brown to pass some acerbic little remark when the people around him are behaving irrationally, but for once, he lets the hysteria pass uncommented on.

In the final lines of the tale, Father Brown and Flambeau are once again dallying near the beach, wondering that the fugitive cult leader hasn’t yet turned up.

“He must be still in England,” observed Flambeau, “and horridly well hidden, too. They must have found him at the ports if he had only whitened his face.”

“You see, he is really a clever man,” said Father Brown apologetically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t whiten his face.”

“Well, but what would he do?”

“I think,” said Father Brown, “he would blacken his face.”

And he gestures meaningfully in the direction of “the soot-masked niggers singing on the sands”.

The blackface Diggers.

joan didion slouching towards bethlehem

In Joan Didion’s 1967 account of life among the San Francisco hippies, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, we make the acquaintance of the Diggers, a loose alliance of radical organizations that includes the San Francisco Mime Troupe. [7]

The Digger crowd are standoffish to Didion, on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, because they see mainstream journalists as their enemies. One of their leaders asks her, “How much you get paid for doing this kind of media poisoning?” Another interviewee, Mime Troupe writer and director Peter Berg, blames her “for the way Life captioned Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures out of Cuba”.

Didion describes a bunch of Diggers and Mime Troupers showing up at a San Francisco park one afternoon where Janis Joplin is giving a free concert. They’re there to freak out the mellow hippies:

I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface.

“It’s street theater,” Sharon assures me. “It’s supposed to be really groovy.”

The Mime Troupers get a little closer, and there are some other peculiar things about them. For one thing they are tapping people on the head with dime-store plastic nightsticks, and for another they are wearing signs on their backs. “HOW MANY TIMES YOU BEEN RAPED, YOU LOVE FREAKS?” and “WHO STOLE CHUCK BERRY’S MUSIC?”, things like that. […]

I walk over to where the Mime Troupers have formed a circle around a Negro. Peter Berg is saying if anybody asks that this is street theater, and I figure the curtain is up because what they are doing right now is jabbing the Negro with the nightsticks. They jab, and they bare their teeth, and they rock on the balls of their feet and they wait.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed here,” the Negro says. “I’m gonna get mad.”

By now there are several Negroes around, reading the signs and watching.

“Just beginning to get annoyed, are you?” one of the Mime Troupers says. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”

“Nobody stole Chuck Berry’s music, man,” says another Negro who has been studying the signs. “Chuck Berry’s music belongs to everybody.”

“Yeh?” a girl in blackface says. “Everybody who?”

“Why,” he says, confused. “Everybody. In America.”

“In America,” the blackface girl shrieks. “Listen to him talk about America.”

“Listen,” he says. “Listen here.”

“What’d America ever do for you?” the girl in blackface jeers. “White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Who ever sends you money?”

“Listen,” the Negro says helplessly. “You’re gonna start something here, this isn’t right—”

“You tell us what’s right, black boy,” the girl says.

The youngest member of the blackface group, an earnest tall kid about nineteen, twenty, is hanging back at the edge of the scene. I offer him an apple and ask what is going on. “Well,” he says, “I’m new at this, I’m just beginning to study it, but you see the capitalists are taking over the District, and that’s what Peter—well, ask Peter.”

Maybe the Diggers were right to accuse Didion of “media poisoning”. She paints the Mime Troupers as slightly sinister idiots, ruining the afternoon’s good vibes in the name of some half-baked idea of social action they can’t even articulate.

Was this fair? The 1968 documentary Have You Heard of the San Francisco Mime Troupe? (viewable, for now at least, on YouTube and at The Digger Archives) provides a pretty thorough immersion in the Digger milieu – almost an hour of interviews, rehearsal footage, and dimestore political theorizing. To me they seem no more crazily ideological than your typical 2020 arts crowd, although of course that’s largely a product of the Diggers’ crazy ideology having gone thoroughly mainstream in the intervening half-century.

The documentary includes long excerpts from the Mime Troupe’s touring blackface production A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel – “an outspoken comment on the black man’s condition in America”, per the narrator. (These excerpts begin around 24:40 and continue at intervals until the end of the doc.) We see the minstrels jokily interacting with audience members – white and black – in ways consistent with what Didion describes. Everyone seems pretty chill about it.

san francisco mime troupe minstrel show

Minstrel and audience members in A Minstrel Show, or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel. Source: The Digger Archives.

Putting aside the blackface, the play is extremely relevant to contemporary progressive obsessions: it culminates in the killing of a “black” man by a “white” cop (both portrayed by actors in blackface). Modern anti-racists might find it instructive to see how their grandparents’ generation dealt with the theme – if they could make it through the video without falling to pieces at the sight of six actors (some white, some black) clowning in blackface. They might find themselves agreeing with the reactionary squares whom Peter Berg, in a 1966 letter to Educational Theatre News, blasted for censoring his show:

A Minstrel Show was blacked-out in mid-performance by officials of Olympia College in Washington because of “unsuitability” of its material. The student body audience was loudly divided about the administration’s heavy-handed censorship, and the Minstrel cast called from the stage for a vote. Officials refused, then compounded their Dark Ages policy by clearing the theatre of students and performers.

One of the stars of A Minstrel Show, Peter Cohon, went on to fame as the Hollywood actor Peter Coyote, best known for E.T. You can hear him in the documentary trying to explain what the Mime Troupe had in mind:

When I started in the show, it was like embarrassing, wow. It’s hard to put blackface on your face and be there with three white cats and three black cats in the cast, and you’re making fun of each other, and you gotta be pretty sure where you stand. And you can’t just give lip service to it. Um, before you can swing behind it, you really gotta work some stuff out.

Coyote’s black co-star Jason Marc Alexander, his face half obscured by black greasepaint, adds in a backstage interview:

The way I figure it is, there’s really no-one else saying what we’re saying in the way we’re saying it. We still are dealing with a very old, ugly problem. … And I dunno, I just get the feeling like, uh, this country has done so much running away from itself that it’s going to wind up just going into a circle, just a circle of madness, until it finally, just, flip totally out. Cause there’s so many things we’re trying to pretend aren’t there. And we all know they are.

Which reminds me a bit of something Father Brown says in another Chesterton story:

“And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [8]

M.

1. I put in my customary couple hours of half-assed research preparing to write this essay. The two books I skimmed, W.T. Lhamon’s Raising Cain: Blackface Performance From Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from 1998, and John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture, from 2006, probably couldn’t be published today: not only because both authors are white, but because they offer a more nuanced, even sympathetic, analysis of blackface than is currently acceptable.

2. While Rex Stout’s political commitments were openly worn, I’m less sure about Damon Runyon’s. If I’ve correctly decoded the heavy irony in this 1946 installment of his weekly newspaper column – which takes the form of a scathing review of one of his own books – he was a conventional FDR-era liberal, which would of course make him a Nazi deserving of punching, by 2020 standards.

3. From a 1978 review of Wodehouse’s unfinished final novel, Sunset at Blandings, in Martin Amis’ collection The War Against Cliché.

4. The third great successor of Sherlock Holmes, per Kingsley Amis, was John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell, with whose adventures I am unacquainted. Amis praises Carr for carrying on in Chesterton’s romantic tradition, but with “the wilder flights of fancy brought under control, the holes in the plot conscientiously plastered over and made good.”

5. This essay, “Unreal Policeman”, is in Amis’ 1970 collection What Became of Jane Austen? The story with the sun cult is “The Eye of Apollo”, from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.

6. The hot-tempered Arab is in “The Quick One”, from The Scandal of Father Brown, 1935.

7. The text of Didion’s article that appears at the Saturday Evening Post website is slightly different than the version that appears in my copy of her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

8. The final Chesterton quote is from “The Purple Wig” in The Wisdom of Father Brown.

I’ve left out of this catalogue of 20th century blackface literature John Howard Griffin’s classic book of undercover investigative reporting, Black Like Me, which I discussed in 2010. Also that year I quoted Joan Didion in a review of Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape. I referred to a different Nero Wolfe story in my 2017 musings on coarse-grained versus fine-grained fiction.

John Diefenbaker’s One Canada.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s memoir One Canada was published in three volumes between 1975 and 1977. My boxed set was inscribed to me by the ex-PM on April 8th, 1979, when he was in negotiations with my father to narrate a series of radio vignettes about famous Native Canadians. I wasn’t present; I had just turned three. Diefenbaker died that summer, putting an end to the idea.

I wrote a couple years back about my “dad books” – the ten to twenty percent of my library that I inherited from my father and have kept around less out of enthusiasm than out of a sense of filial duty. The three volumes of One Canada were my last unread dad books. Politicians’ memoirs are not a genre of particular interest to me.

However, I feel a personal connection to Diefenbaker, not only through his slight acquaintance with my father but because of my Saskatchewan upbringing. I grew up in Prince Albert, the town where Diefenbaker settled in the 1920s and which he represented in parliament from 1952 until the end of his life. Many of the minor figures mentioned in the first volume of One Canada I recognize from the names of streets and civic buildings in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. From grade three to seven I attended John Diefenbaker School. On visits home I fly into Diefenbaker International Airport.

As for his politics, before reading his memoir I knew three things about Diefenbaker’s career:

  1. That his government had extended to all adult Native Canadians the right to vote. (Which is why he was a logical choice to narrate those radio vignettes. I’m sure my father also would’ve found some way to work in Diefenbaker’s nickname, The Chief.)
  2. That at the peak of Cold War nuclear tensions, his government had initiated a program of civil defence that involved mobilizing the Canadian Militia (known today as the Army Reserve), of which my father was, as a young man, a member. This program’s most, ahem, concrete result was the so-called Diefenbunker, a fallout shelter and emergency command centre outside Ottawa. [1]
  3. That, in opposition, he had forcefully opposed the design for what became our national flag.

My uneducated verdict: Canada didn’t fall apart under the six years of his rule. On the other hand, Diefenbunker aside, it was hard to point to any enduring accomplishment of his government.

(Note: all unsourced Diefenbaker quotes and anecdotes are taken from One Canada.)

diefenbaker one canada boxed set

One Canada, Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker.

Progressive, conservative.

Between 1942 and 2003 Canada’s right-of-centre party, colloquially the Tories, were officially the Progressive Conservative Party: columnist Allan Fotheringham used to mock them as the Forward-Backwards Party.

This self-cancelling sobriquet originated as a sop to John Bracken, the popular Progressive premier of Manitoba, to induce him to seek the national Conservative leadership in 1942. In Diefenbaker’s view, by the 1945 election (which the Tories lost) Bracken had abandoned whatever Progressive principles he carried over to his new party.

Before romping to the Tory leadership in 1956, Diefenbaker made longshot runs in 1942 (just two years after arriving in Ottawa) and 1948. He did a little better each time, to the annoyance of the party “pashas” in Central Canada, whom he disdained as reactionaries and who in turn despised him as a “Western populist”. Then as now, what this meant was hard to pin down:

I once asked one of them to define the term for me. He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Much of Dief’s “populism” was gestural, like his conspicuous lack of interest in joining Ottawa’s tony Rideau Club. (He used to chuckle that from his office atop Parliament Hill he could “look down on” the club a couple blocks away.) In his memoir he recounts how an “important Canadian industrialist” once dropped by his office and complained when he wasn’t shown in ahead of an Alberta farmer with a prior appointment – a mere “rustic”, as the indignant bigshot supposedly described him.

That such snobbishness was highly correlated with Liberal Party membership may have been more than Dief’s paranoid fancy: after 21 uninterrupted years in power, the Liberals would have been the party of choice for power-hungry hacks, greasy-pole-climbers, and all those serenely invested in the status quo.

The Tories defeated Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal Party in 1957 by running to their left on the economy – vowing to increase the Old Age Pension, launch a major public works program to fight rising unemployment, and roll back the “continentalist” trade policy that had allowed big American corporations to buy out or outcompete smaller Canadian firms. Their victory was propelled in part by public disgust at Liberal high-handedness in invoking closure to shut down the Pipeline Debate in 1956; the Tories’ main objection to that bill had been that the pipeline in question was to be built by an American-owned company.

You’ll notice that 1950s-style Progressive Conservativism has a lot of overlap with modern-day conservative populism – bumptiously nationalistic, suspicious of foreign capital, blithe about budget deficits – and would go over about as well with the descendents of that “important Canadian industrialist”. As Peter C. Newman wrote in Maclean’s during the 1963 election campaign:

The sight of a Tory prime minister condemning Toronto financial interests is indeed a strange one in Canadian history. But then Diefenbaker has always been a maverick in his own party. When he was in opposition he shocked his fellow Conservatives by advocating that businessmen convicted of monopoly practices should be jailed, not just fined.

Diefenbaker elaborates:

To steal a million dollars and face a ten-thousand-dollar fine, if one was caught, was an invitation to the potential wrongdoer. … [A] corporation as an artificial person is not punished by picayune penalties of that kind.

I’m sure Dief would have had much to say about a Liberal government’s legally questionable convolutions to avoid prosecuting a major Quebec-based employer.

Against bigness.

Humblingly, the fourth thing I thought I knew about Diefenbaker I had completely backward. In my faulty recollection Dief, the doughty sentinel of Canadian sovereignty, had nurtured the Avro Arrow, the technologically advanced fighter jet whose funding was vindictively cut off by his Liberal successors.

Of course, as any afficianado of Canadian made-for-TV historical dramas could tell you, it was Diefenbaker who vindictively killed the Arrow, a project bequeathed to him by Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. As he admits:

[F]rom a construction standpoint, the AVRO Arrow was an impressive aircraft, superior to any other known contemporary all-weather fighter, something all Canadians could be proud of as their product.

But alas:

[I]t was altogether too costly, had too short a range, and would be out of date by the time it got into production.

Moreover, the Arrow’s potential customers in Europe and the States, concerned no doubt with cultivating their countries’ own airplane industries, showed no interest in buying the damn thing. Critics (like Gordon Donaldson, in Sixteen Men) have recast Dief’s reluctant acceptance of the economic realities as a deliberate and gleeful desecration:

An industry died and Diefenbaker stamped on its grave by personally demanding that the five Arrows in existence be completely destroyed. … It was the most extravagant display of vandalism in Canadian history.

Dief claims to have had no foreknowledge of the “callous” way his decision would be handled – the workers laid off via an announcement over the factory loudspeakers, the prototypes “reduced to scrap”. For these actions he pins the blame on the manufacturers, who were lazy parasites besides:

A.V. Roe, since the end of the Second World War, had lived and grown rich on Canadian defence contracts. The company seemed horror-struck at the prospect of having ever to compete in a normal market-place situation.

It isn’t hard for a more sympathetic historian, like John Boyko, to frame this as another instance of Diefenbaker putting the boot to entrenched business interests:

Two years before President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, Diefenbaker proved that he would not be its handmaiden: the Arrow was dead[.]

In fact, Diefenbaker was as fulsome as any modern conservative in his attacks on government waste and his celebration of free markets. This sometimes had schizophrenic effects. Senator Eugene Forsey recalled a meeting with the Canadian Labour Congress in which one of Dief’s ministers gave a well-received presentation on the government’s labour-friendly policies. But alas:

The prime minister arose and said, “I have nothing to add to what the minister of labour has said,” and then talked for ten minutes and proved it. He not only had nothing to add, he had a great deal to subtract. It wasn’t at all clear … But out of the fog came, from time to time, “free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise to which this government was devoted…”
—Quoted in Peter Stursberg’s Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained.

Forsey sent a letter chiding the PM for fumbling the goodwill his minister had reaped; Dief responded by snubbing Forsey for the next two years.

In his memoir, Diefenbaker attempts to square his contradictory impulses:

I believe in the right of the individual to make his best in life. I have nothing but contempt for those who regard profits as being dangerous. Without them there is no advance, nor would there be the free society that is ours. But I believe that there must be a minimum for all. There is a profound division between those who believe that the State has no legitimate role in determining the course of the individual, and those who believe that the State has responsibilities as a referee, and so must have the power to protect the weak and the less privileged. I am not against big business. Bigness is essential today as never before; but I am against bigness when it permits the few to destroy or undermine the welfare of the many.

(A modern-day conservative populist has expressed the idea more pithily:

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite.)

To his conservative critics, such ideological eclecticism only proved that Diefenbaker “had no discernible political convictions”. To liberal journalists, who might have been expected to show more sympathy, the explanation was that he was building a personality cult. Newman again:

Diefenbaker made sure there would be few ideological barriers to those who wanted to become his disciples. In order to involve non-Conservatives in his struggle, he deliberately discarded most of his party’s traditional policies and transformed it into an organ of personal aggrandizement.

In a later Maclean’s article Newman would psychoanalyze Diefenbaker’s small-town followers in language forecasting modern-day expeditions among the surly denizens of Trumpland:

It is anger that fills their minds and resentment that motivates their politics. Not so long ago they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. They won this country from the wilderness and now they have lost it[.] … They regret the disappearance of simplicity, fidelity and all the homely virtues.

Meanwhile Dief’s Liberal opponents, however few their substantive policy differences with his government, had borrowed from their American friends the mantle of suavity and forward-lookingness. When in 1963 Democratic Party pollster Lou Harris (who had entered Canada using a false name to avoid alerting Diefenbaker to his presence) surveyed the electorate on behalf of Lester Pearson’s Liberals he found that (to quote Boyko again):

The party was attracting the same people as Kennedy and the Democrats: urban, educated, young, middle and upper class, and ethnic minorities. These groups, Harris told his Liberal friends, represented Canada’s future. Conservative support rested with each of the groups’ mirror opposites and, like Diefenbaker himself, hearkened back to a quickly receding past.

Years later, the author George Grant recalled how he’d baffled the metropolitan opinion-shapers by backing this “silly survivor from a well-forgotten past”. He quotes a “young scion of great wealth” who chided him:

“Oh George, how can you support such a vulgarian? Pearson is such a gentleman compared to that yahoo.”

Deux nations.

john and olive diefenbaker 1960

John and Olive Diefenbaker in 1960.
Source: Maclean’s.

Of course, no populist campaign would be complete without accusations of dog-whistle politics. However often Diefenbaker protested his belief in equal rights for all – however conciliatory were the French phrases he bawled out in his barbaric Saskatchewan accent – he could never shed the reputation of being secretly anti-Quebec.

The critics were confident that they could crack Dief’s coded messages to his redneck base. Of the 1965 campaign, in which the ousted Chief flogged his Liberal successors over a series of scandals, historian J.L. Granatstein wrote:

The names were French, and the Tory leader revelled in his mispronunciations and appeals for One Canada. In the code of the day, whatever Diefenbaker might have meant, he was unfailingly understood as wanting to put and keep Quebec in its place.

Or when at the 1967 Tory convention, Dief (fighting hopelessly to retain the party leadership) resisted a policy declaring Canada as constituting “deux nations”:

To many it seemed only a statement of the Canadian reality. But to John Diefenbaker, deux nations meant that his party was giving short shrift to those Canadians who were of neither French nor English origin and conceding an equality to French Canadians that he could not accept.

Pained by such sniping, Dief would point to his government’s record: the appointment of Canada’s first French Canadian governor general, bilingual cheques for civil servants, the introduction of simultaneous translation in parliamentary debates. His cabinet minister Leon Balcer later told Peter Stursberg that these were “the kind of thing that would have created enthusiasm in Quebec in the fifties”. But by 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was already getting into swing, and such gestures could be dismissed as mere “tokenism”.

While Dief was seen in some English Canadian circles as too ethnic, in Quebec he was resented for his sentimental attachment to the British crown, his support for conscription during the war, and his reverence for Tory prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, still blamed for overseeing the execution of the French Canadian rebel Louis Riel in 1885. That event wasn’t such ancient history as it seems today: as a child Diefenbaker had met Riel’s lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, by then a fearsome and fascinating old man, with a distinctive part in his hair from the bullet that grazed his skull at the battle of Duck Lake.

Diefenbaker thought that Riel’s cause had been just, but the man himself off his rocker:

If I had a case in which the evidence of insanity was as clear, I would not have to submit any further evidence, I feel sure. If he had allowed his lawyers to carry the defence as they wanted to, he would have been found “not guilty” by reason of insanity.

Riel’s death, he complained, had ever since been “a millstone” dragging down the Tories’ chances in Quebec.

Ironically, it was a Quebecker, Diefenbaker’s sometime-ally, sometime-rival Pierre Sevigny, who claimed credit for inventing Dief’s catchphrase during the 1958 campaign:

Diefenbaker was talking in his inimitable way about Canada, the dream of a greater and better and bigger Canada. I told him: “Well let’s leave it as this. One Canada where everybody will live together in harmony.” I remember the word “harmony.” My God, it was as if I had put a bomb under his seat. He got up and said, “That’s it! Yes. One Canada.”

Sevigny traced Dief’s anti-French reputation back to his decision in 1957 to heed the strategic advice of a western colleague, Gordon Churchill, to reallocate party funds away from the pursuit of Quebec votes:

[Churchill] did not advocate starving out Quebec and giving it nothing. But he advocated a common-sense policy which was to use the little money that the PCs had in a better way, in a more rational way than had been done. …

Of course, politics being the nice polite game that it is, Mr Churchill’s and Mr Diefenbaker’s and all of the Conservatives’ enemies took advantage of this declaration to represent Churchill as the enemy of Quebec and French Canada and that kind of nonsense.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

In this respect, the 1957 Tories presaged the 2016 Trump campaign’s adoption of the so-called Sailer Strategy of abandoning their unavailing attempts to win over Latino voters to pursue more numerous, more persuadable blue-collar whites.

The dirty brush.

john diefenbaker 1940

Diefenbaker circa 1940.
Source: Saskatoon Public Library.

Like Donald Trump, Diefenbaker would be dogged by rumours of association with avowed racists:

A flash in the pan, the K.K.K. was first noticeable in Saskatchewan in 1926. It spread much in the same way as the Non-Partisan League or the Progressive Party before it. Based on a strong anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-non-English-immigrant, anti-coloured sentiment, it was fired by the oratorical powers of J.J. Maloney. Around it coalesced certain factions sharing a bitter hatred for the [Liberal Premier James] Gardiner machine. If left alone, it might have disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. Unfortunately for everyone, Gardiner began in 1928 to use it as a political straw man. He launched a series of political attacks on it in the Provincial Legislature, bringing the K.K.K. out of its obscurity, giving its leaders the appearance of political martyrs, and making it a recognizable centre of opposition to his government and its policies. Everyone who opposed Gardiner, his policies, and the viciousness of his machine was tarred with the dirty brush of Klan fanaticism.

That, at least, was how Diefenbaker saw it: no doubt Gardiner and his allies convinced themselves they were doing noble work, shining a cleansing light on this outbreak of moral bacilli. (Likewise Hillary Clinton as she singlehandedly made the alt-right a household name by condemning it in the middle of a national election campaign; likewise the American media each time they play along with some desperate attempt by David Duke to edge himself into the national conversation.)

Diefenbaker goes on to share an addendum to the Klan story that a contemporary politico would likely omit:

I met the Klan leader, J.J. Maloney, only once and then for a period of not more than five or ten minutes. He asked for legal advice on the financial difficulties of the K.K.K. arising when its American organizers absconded with a large part of the organization’s dues.

I’m sure this encounter didn’t help Diefenbaker’s case when, during his 1956 leadership campaign, he was accused of having been in the Klan. He was cleared through the intercession of a Saskatchewan cabinet minister who, having access for some reason to “a complete list of the Klan membership”, swore that Diefenbaker’s name wasn’t on it.

(While some of Dief’s foes were trying to link him to the Klan, others were whispering that he was secretly a Jew.)

A reincarnated Diefenbaker would probably be more circumspect about having had cordial business dealings with a Klan leader. But the incident is consistent with his belief that everyone, however unpopular, was entitled to a legal defense. [2] During World War II he opposed the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take up arms; at the dawn of the Cold War he condemned the government’s use of “police state methods” to break up a Soviet spy ring; and soon after he was “booed to the echo” by his Tory colleagues for resisting a party proposal to criminalize Communism. As Maclean’s related a few years later:

[T]he project got so far along that the literature was actually printed and awaiting distribution. Diefenbaker fought the idea in caucus, using the same arguments as Stuart Garson, the Liberal Minister of Justice, uses in public – that to outlaw Communism merely drives the party underground; that you can’t put a man in jail for his beliefs, no matter what they are. Diefenbaker carried his point. The campaign literature, still in bales, was carted away and burned. But the incident did nothing to allay the suspicions of those who call Diefenbaker a “Leftist.”

(In those quaint days “Leftists” were understood to be opposed to criminalizing speech.)

When in 1958 he introduced his legislation for a bill of rights – a document he’d been tinkering with since his days as a young lawyer in Wakaw, Saskatchewan – it was with the promise that thenceforth

wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour, the Parliament of Canada would be jealous of his rights.

In his statue on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker is depicted clutching a copy of his cherished bill.

“They are all Canadians.”

Dief’s bugbear “hyphenated Canadianism” sounds like a talking point from Canada’s modern-day megaphone of intemperate populism, The Rebel. But back before our government began sorting the citizenry into ever more profusely hyphenated racial categories to enforce equal representation, Dief’s beef was with what modern progressives would call the “othering” of those with non-British and non-French ancestry.

In an interview with Maclean’s during the 1958 election, Diefenbaker was strangely tight-lipped about the most innocent subjects – his favourite books, his favourite TV shows, his favourite food [3] – but he opened up when asked about “his compass”:

I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration. … It’s the reason I went into public life. That is what I said I was going to do. I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin – and they are all Canadians. [4]

Under his government, Canada’s immigration system was reformed to remove the preferential status that had been granted to applicants from the British Isles and Western Europe. He bragged of having encouraged Canada’s first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, to run – “because he was a good man for the riding, not because he was black” – and of having appointed Canada’s first Native Canadian senator, James Gladstone.

diefenbaker native headdress duck lake saskatchewan

Diefenbaker is lectured for culturally appropriating Native Canadian headgear.
(I kid.)

As for Louis Rasminsky, his pick as governor of the Bank of Canada, he claimed he would have had the job already if St. Laurent’s Liberals hadn’t ruled him out because he was a Jew.

Diefenbaker sympathized with minorities in part because he, too, had put up with digs about his ethnicity. Saskatchewan CCF leader Tommy Douglas recalled sharing a microphone with Diefenbaker during the 1940 campaign:

I was rather pleased to meet him because at that time he was having a difficult time. My sympathies were with him. … [His Liberal opponent] Fred Johnson, more than by innuendo, very deliberately tried to portray Diefenbaker as a German. Every time he referred to him he referred to him as my opponent, “Mr. Diefenbacker,” and made it as guttural as possible at a time when, of course, anti-German feeling was very high.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Although the political impact was probably marginal – Diefenbaker narrowly won that race – such insults nevertheless stung:

I suppose that those who have never experienced this sort of thing will never truly understand it. I have often wondered what the effect on my life would have been if my name had been my mother’s, Campbell-Bannerman, rather than Diefenbaker. [5]

Hence, President John F. Kennedy’s innocent mispronunciation of “Diefenbawker” was doubly grating: a personal slight, as well as a slight to Canada, whose leader’s name the callow president couldn’t be troubled to learn.

diefenbaker kennedy maclean's magazine

Diefenbaker and Kennedy.
Source: Maclean’s.

(As prickly as Dief could be about his own name, his enemies’ names were fair targets: during the 1965 election he would rail at “the Bananas and the Mananas and the rest of that menagerie,” referring to some petty Liberal corruption scandals concerning mobsters Joe Bonanno and Onofrio Minaudo.)

Reading about Dief’s name sensitivity, I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ complaint in Hitch-22 that certain left-wing journalists, when discussing his politically unpopular friend Paul Wolfowitz, would become suspiciously fastidious about pronouncing his name “Volfervitz” – rather than in the usual, and in this case correct, American way.

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

While on this topic, I can’t overlook Peter C. Newman’s assertion that Diefenbaker, nettled by his portrayal as a vain ditherer in Newman’s book Renegade In Power,

took great delight in mispronouncing my name as “Kneeman,” or more frequently as “Noyman.” He called me, in public, the “Bouncing Czech” [6] and in private, “that Viennese Jew.”

As evidence, Newman points to a handwritten note in the Diefenbaker archives:

Then there is Newman. … He is an innately evil person who seems intent on tearing other people to pieces. Seems honourable people have no protection from his mind and pen. He makes his fortune in doing so. NOTE: He is an import from VIENNA! [7]

Decline and fall.

As Robert Fulford documented after Dief’s 1963 defeat:

American journalists showed no affection for John Diefenbaker. He said in the campaign that they were against him, and he was right … from the liberal Democratic Reporter (“incapable of decision”) through the liberal Republican Life (“shrewd but narrow”), through the nonpartisan Atlantic Monthly (“Washington, like London, is weary of the Diefenbaker regime, which has had a genius for annoying both capitals”) right over to the ultra-conservative National Review (“led a once-great party into a wilderness of suspicion and parochialism”).

In his 1962 and ’63 campaigns, Dief suffered media coverage so blatantly, nitpickingly negative that it probably helped him, by affirming the authenticity of his embattled little-guy pose, more than it hurt. If anyone doubted that the powers-that-be had it in for him, he could unfurl, say, this mid-campaign edition of Newsweek with its lurid cover portrait:

diefenbaker newsweek cover february 1963

Newsweek, February, 1963.

…and equally lurid portrait inside:

[T]he India-rubber features twist and contort in grotesque and gargoyle-like grimaces; beneath the electric gray V of the hairline, the eyebrows beat up and down like bats’ wings; the agate-blue eyes blaze forth cold fire.

Diefenbaker would claim in his memoir that Newsweek‘s Washington bureau chief, a friend and ally of President Kennedy, had published the above article at Kennedy’s behest.

The later years of Dief’s rule had been enlivened by repeated spats with the Americans. The PM had gotten on chummily with President Eisenhower, who “[u]nlike his successor … did not regard the United States presidency as a glittering jewel; he saw it as a job to be done.” But when the rich, good-looking Kennedy came to power, Dief saw in him a Yankee manifestation of Liberal-style haughtiness and unearned self-assurance. (Kennedy had an equally immediate aversion to Diefenbaker, “that boring son of a bitch”; Mrs. Kennedy found his conversation “painful”.)

On their first meeting, in Washington, the former small-town lawyer asked the new president how he could have appointed his brother Robert, with no expertise in the law, as Attorney-General. Kennedy evaded the question with a joke: “Can you tell me how he could learn law faster?”

When the two history buffs chatted about the War of 1812, Kennedy teased his visitor that he was unaware of any British naval victories in that war. On his return to Ottawa, Diefenbaker instructed his national librarian to dig up some paintings depicting British victories so that he could send one as a gift to the president. His executive assistant John Fisher resisted:

I pleaded with Mr Diefenbaker, “Don’t send that to Kennedy, sir. What are you trying to prove by sending down something a hundred years after the event?” “Oh, we must teach him history. History must be taught,” he would mutter. I could tell from the twinkle in his eye that he was enjoying the devilish exercise.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Fisher had the paintings sent out to be cleaned and then “stalled, stalled, stalled” in the hope that his boss would forget about the rash idea. (They were never sent.)

As the two leaders’ relationship soured, the ribbing gave way to real antipathy. Of being nagged by the new president to join the Organization of American States, Dief writes:

I was not about to have Canada bullied into any course of action. This was the first of a number of occasions on which I had to explain to President Kennedy that Canada was not Massachusetts, or even Boston.

He bristled at Kennedy’s demand that Canada stop trading with Castro’s Cuba, and lost his temper over American bureaucratic interference with a shipment of Canadian wheat to Communist China. Kennedy was equally infuriated when Diefenbaker was slow to mobilize the Canadian military during the Cuban missile crisis. (Dief feared that the move might antagonize the Soviets.) But the final straw was the PM’s refusal to accept American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc surface-to-air missile systems he’d agreed to install at two locations in Ontario and Quebec.

Dief’s reticence wasn’t based on philosophical opposition to nukes (although he was in favour of non-proliferation and arms-reduction treaties in the abstract) but on the reasonable-seeming principle that Canada must first be guaranteed joint control – that is, a “qualified veto” governing the use – of any nukes stationed on Canadian soil.

With nuclear bombers having been supplanted as the major threat to North American security by intercontinental missiles – against which surface-to-air missiles were ineffective – Dief had begun to suspect that, like the now-cancelled Avro Arrow, the Bomarcs survived only because of bureaucratic inertia. It didn’t emerge until just before the 1963 election that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had admitted that the Bomarcs’ primary strategic purpose now was to draw fire from Soviet missiles “that would otherwise be available for other targets”.

By the mid-1970s, when Dief was composing his memoir, the Liberals under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had gone much farther in thumbing their noses at the Americans while advertising Canada’s friendliness to Communist regimes. But in the early 1960s those needling Dief for insufficient hawkishness included not only right-wing members of his own cabinet, but most of the media, the Democratic administration in Washington, and his Liberal opposition in Ottawa.

Trudeau’s predecessor as Liberal leader, Lester Pearson – for the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, that would be Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson – jettisoned his earlier skepticism toward the Bomarc system and blasted the government for its “evasion of responsibility” in not accepting the nuclear warheads. In Dief’s view, Pearson had sold his principles in exchange for foreign aid in the elections of 1962 and 1963:

President Kennedy had achieved his dearest Canadian wish. It was a partnership complete: the Liberals under Pearson had progressed, if one may call it that, from condemning our wheat sales to Communist China … to embracing the United States position on arming with nuclear weapons the Bomarcs and, no doubt, yielding to United States demands for the storage of all manner of nuclear devices in Canada. At the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau described Mr. Pearson as “the unfrocked pope of peace.”

(Trudeau in the early 1960s had been a supporter of the socialist NDP and a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout his memoirs Dief has fun recalling Trudeau’s gibes at Pearson’s coziness with the Americans.)

diefenbaker watching trudeau on tv

Diefenbaker watches Trudeau in the 1979 leaders’ debate.
Source: Canadian Press.

Kennedy’s team certainly made no secret of the fact that they had been cheerleading for Pearson’s Liberals, even if their actual interference had the opposite of the desired effect: the newly elected Pearson told Kennedy that his State Department’s notorious press release accusing the ex-PM of lying about the nuclear negotiations had “probably cost me fifty seats”, by riling up Dief’s nationalist supporters.

I’m sure many readers will scoff at Diefenbaker’s suggestion that besides authorizing the press release, ordering up the nasty Newsweek article, and loaning his pollster to the Liberals, Kennedy had arranged for his Wall Street buddies to take steps to undermine the Canadian economy, leading to the 1962 run on the currency which contributed to Dief’s defeat.

There’s no proof of that. But at the time, many Americans concurred with Diefenbaker that Washington had deftly engineered his downfall. Some, like Richard Starnes in the Washington Daily News, praised the operation:

[A]droit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime that promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence. … [T]he Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.

Other Americans were aghast at their government’s cheek, like the man who approached Dief in the wake of his loss saying, “I want to shake hands with the only Prime Minister of Canada who has ever been defeated by a President of the United States.”

Whatever combo of U.S. interference, media bias, and Tory backstabbing overwhelmed Diefenbaker, it was certainly helped along by his own talent for aggravating the rich and influential. As he expressed it, not without self-pity:

I went down there to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me[.]

One Canada.

In the foreword to Volume Two of One Canada, Diefenbaker’s editors remark that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, like President Hoover in the States, is to this day maligned for having had the bad luck to be in power as the Great Depression set in. Bennett left no memoir to tell his side of the story. Consequently:

The Conservative regime that governed Canada from 1930 to 1935 has been treated by Canadian historians as an aberration in the great Liberal scheme of things Canadian. A major work on R.B. Bennett has yet to be written. Had Mr. Diefenbaker failed to provide us his account of his national stewardship, we might have had worse than nothing in its stead.

Intent on supplying grist for the historians, Diefenbaker dissects his prime ministership with eye-glazing thoroughness, quoting liberally from his own speeches, press statements, and routine correspondence. (Perhaps to debunk the myth of his French-language illiteracy, several lengthy statements are presented in their original French.)

But his tendency to assume an intimate knowledge of the politics of his era makes his memoir useless as a standalone history. Often he’ll introduce a subject with some comment like “Without going into unnecessary details (they are chronicled elsewhere)…” leaving the reader to guess where he stood on the issue: not always easy, given how Dief bucked his own party’s traditions, not to mention how political alignments have shifted in the past sixty years. I found myself skimming a lot, slowing down for the interludes of gossip, spleen-venting, and folksy wisdom.

Therefore I can’t quite recommend One Canada to casual readers. Perhaps some Canadian publishing house with a passion for 20th century history and a jaunty indifference to sales figures could undertake a one-volume abridgement, which would skip over the langours but retain all the good stuff. If an editor is wanted, I’m available.

M.

1. Re Diefenbaker’s civil defence policy, see discussion of the Special Militia Training Plan in Chapter 6 of Andrew Burtch’s “Canada and the Failure of Civil Defence, 1945-1963”.

2. Dief took seriously his cabinet’s responsibility to review every death sentence case; these lengthy discussions annoyed his colleagues and contributed to his government’s reputation for irresolution and inertia. Per Peter C. Newman’s accounting (in Renegade In Power), Dief’s cabinet commuted 52 of the 66 death sentences they examined, a percentage much higher than their predecessors’ 35 of 85.

These sentence reviews led to awkwardness over the presence of Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister, whom the old-fashioned Dief once asked to leave the room during consideration of an infamous sex killing. She complied but later scoffed at the overdelicacy of her “namby-pamby” male colleagues. (This story is related in Stursberg’s Leadership Gained.)

3. In Renegade in Power, Newman recounts how “when reporters badgered Mrs Diefenbaker to tell them her husband’s favourite food, she had no answer. Later, when she asked him, he hesitated for a while, then replied, ‘Oh, yes, I know. Potatoes.'”

4. In the same 1958 Maclean’s interview Diefenbaker declares that he has “an intensive hatred for discrimination based on color”. He attributes this conviction, strangely enough, to his early viewing of the movie Birth of a Nation, with its heroic Ku Klux Klansmen protecting Southern civilization from brutish blacks. As near as I can tell from browsing old reviews on Google Books, Birth of a Nation was seen as racist even in the 1950s. Did Dief mean that as a teen he was so repelled by the movie that he became an anti-racist? Or did he discern in it some anti-racist moral that is invisible to modern viewers?

5. Considering the number of Canadians and Americans with German ancestry, it’s remarkable how rarely politicians with German-sounding names have risen to prominence in either country. West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer couldn’t help noticing the overlapping tenures of the 20th century’s two great exceptions: at a 1958 meeting with the PM, he joked, “Adenauer, Eisenhower, and Diefenbaker – what a threesome!”

6. In Martin Amis’s non-fiction book about Communism, Koba the Dread, he mentions how after his father Kingsley visited Czechoslovakia in 1966 a “stream of Czechs” dropped by their London home, leading to a corresponding stream of bad puns: “There were bouncing Czechs, certified Czechs, and at least one honored Czech, the novelist Josef Skvorecky.”

7. I really don’t know what to make of Dief’s alleged slurs against Newman, who has been accused by others of “greedy and cynical manipulation” of the facts: Conrad Black, for one, called him “a peddler of gossip” and sued him for libel. But then, Black’s reputation is not exactly without blemish

Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

nicholson baker u and i

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

saul bellow humboldt's gift

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?’”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

c.s. lewis the abolition of man

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added book cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

Crossing over: Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Recently, over breakfast, my girlfriend and I chatted about some of the TV programs that she, having come to consciousness only in the mid-’90s, never had a chance to experience. She’s seen enough Cheers reruns to get the gist, but Family Ties, Night Court, and Newhart, among others, she knows only by reputation.

I told her how, in the final scene of the final episode of Newhart, it was revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Bob Newhart’s character from his earlier The Bob Newhart Show. This reminded me of St. Elsewhere, and I summarized for her the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis: In outline, since all the events of St. Elsewhere were revealed in that show’s final episode to be the daydreams of a snowglobe-clutching autistic child named Tommy Westphall, and since characters from St. Elsewhere crossed over to a number of other TV shows, including Mash, Cheers, and Homicide: Life on the Street, implying that those shows took place in the same fictional reality, and since characters from those overcrossing shows in turn crossed over to a whole bunch of other shows, it can be argued that the events of all these other shows were also daydreamed by Tommy Westphall. The Tommy Westphall Universe turns out to encompass everything from Mission: Impossible to Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.

Somehow this got me thinking of the connections among some of the books I’ve been reading lately. For instance, Christopher Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 crosses over with his old friend Martin Amis in his memoir Experience, providing complementary versions of the evening when Hitchens was introduced to Amis’s “literary father” Saul Bellow. [1]

christopher hitchens hitch 22

As Hitch tells it:

Martin offers a slightly oblique and esoteric account of a trip on which he took me in 1989, to visit Saul Bellow in Vermont. On our buddy-movie drive up there from Cape Cod – he’s almost word-perfect about this bit – he made it clear that I wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel. (“No sinister balls,” which was our colloquialism for a certain kind of too-easy leftism.) I knew I was being greatly honored by the invitation, not just because it was a huge distinction to meet Bellow but because, second only to an introduction to his father, it was the highest such gift that Martin could bestow. I needed no telling that I should seize the opportunity to do more listening than talking.

And yet it’s true, as he reports, that by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and his own foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.

We learn that Bellow had provoked Hitchens by calumniating his friend, the erudite Palestinian radical and literary critic Edward Said (who was later to fall out with Hitchens as they drifted to ever more irreconcilable positions on the morality of Western intervention in the Arab world, and violent Arab reactions thereto). Hitchens’s defense of his friend had inevitably veered into a lengthy diatribe – “a blue streak of sinister balls”, Amis says – about the misdeeds of Bellow’s beloved Israel. Afterward, Hitchens regretted embarrassing his friend, but:

[Amis] suffered more agony than he needed to, because Bellow as an old former Trotskyist and Chicago streetfighter was used to much warmer work and hardly took offense at all. He later sent me a warm letter about my introduction to a new edition of Augie March.

martin amis experience

Bellow makes several other appearances, besides that awkward dinner party, in Amis’s memoir. We hear for instance how Bellow nearly died of a rare neurological infection he picked up dining on a red snapper on a visit to the Caribbean, a story that appears in slightly fictionalized form in Bellow’s Ravelstein.

That novel is about the death of Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom, the professor, philosopher, and author of The Closing of the American Mind. As Amis says,

I know Bellow’s novel far, far better than I ever knew Bellow’s friend. Yet Ravelstein comes close to persuading me otherwise. This book is numinous. It constitutes an act of resuscitation, and in its pages Bloom lives.

saul bellow ravelstein

In the novel, Bloom-as-Ravelstein importunes the narrator, the Bellow stand-in, to write about him after his death.

“I’m laying this on you as an obligation. Do it in your after-supper-reminiscence manner, when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and you’re laid back and making remarks. I love listening when you are freewheeling about Edmund Wilson or John Berryman or Whittaker Chambers when you were hired at Time in the morning and fired by him before lunch.”

We learn in Hitch-22 that Hitchens, in real life, heard the Whittaker Chambers story from Bellow, on the evening of the awkwardness over Edward Said:

Offered a job as book critic for Time magazine as a young man, Bellow had been interviewed by Chambers and asked to give his opinion about William Wordsworth. Replying perhaps too quickly that Wordsworth had been a Romantic poet, he had been brusquely informed by Chambers that there was no place for him at the magazine. Bellow had often wondered, he told us, what he ought to have said. I suggested that he might have got the job if he’d replied that Wordsworth was a once-revolutionary poet who later became a conservative and was denounced by Browning and others as a turncoat. This seemed to Bellow to be probably right.

Speaking of the “after-supper-reminiscence manner”: both Ravelstein in Ravelstein and his model Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind refer to Plato’s Symposium, that famous gathering of Athenian intellects where Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes and their friends got drunk and declaimed on the nature of love. Taking a poke at modern critical theory, Bloom writes (paraphrasing Nietzche):

[A]fter the ministrations of modern scholarship the Symposium is so far away that it can no longer seduce us; its immediate charm has utterly vanished.

But for non-scholars, the Symposium will always be seductive because it shows us our heroes just as we want to imagine them – hanging out forever in a Valhalla of the intellect, joshing and quipping and making each other spray wine through their noses.

Which brings us to the Friday lunch. Hitch-22 devotes a few pages (and Experience a passing mention) to the boisterous weekly get-together that Hitchens and Amis shared through the 1970s and ’80s with Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Clive James, and illustrious others. Hitchens identifies James as the “chief whip” of the gatherings: “He needed an audience and damn well deserved one.”

clive james north face of soho

It’s James who gives us the vividest picture of the Friday lunch, in his memoir North Face of Soho, showing us how Amis could improvise a tall story, sustaining the massed laughter with “the economical stroke of the whip that did just enough to keep the top spinning”, while Hitchens’s specialty was the interjection of sarcastic asides:

[I]f someone was being straightforward, he could make them funny, and if someone was being funny, he could make them funnier.

The actual content of the proceedings, as repeated by James and Hitchens, isn’t quite the stuff of a modern Symposium­. Hitchens gives a few examples of the wordplay and concedes that there were “long interludes of puerility”; James credits, or blames, the illustrator Mark Boxer for “discouraging the anecdote as form – he wanted the flash of wit. … Nobody was allowed to take his time …” It sounds like a riot, in the sense that it must have been obnoxious and nerve-jangling, each man contending to make the biggest smash. [2]

Speaking of that lunch, which Hitchens says has “become the potential stuff of a new ‘Bloomsbury’ legend” – the legend would gain momentum more quickly if it had a catchier name than “the Friday lunch”, which is what Clive James also calls it in his memoir. James reports that when he kickstarted the gathering, he liked to refer to it mock-conspiratorially as the “Modish London Literary World”, a dig at the Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, who apparently believed such a conspiracy explained why his favoured authors kept getting bad reviews. Unfortunately the Modish brand never caught on. Before they all shuffle off to trade zingers with Aristophanes and Allan Bloom, can we agree on a name for this cohort of legendary British wits? (As with Bloomsbury, MacSpaunday, and the Algonquin Round Table, it’ll help future generations to keep them sorted.) In its heyday the group convened at the Bursa Kebab House; occasionally James calls it the Kebab House lunch. How about the Kebab House Group?

allan bloom the closing of the american mind

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom mentions a student who fretted to him, after reading the Symposium, that “it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced” in his own place and time. Bloom disputes this: “such experiences are always accessible”; his student “had brains, friends, and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will”. Most of us will never enjoy after-dinner discussions quite as stirring as the Symposium, or as riotous as the Kebab House lunches. But as Bloom consolingly reflects,

This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato’s book about him, which might even be better.

M.

1. Amis says of Bellow, “I am not his son, of course. What I am is his ideal reader. I am not my father [Kingsley]’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.”

James mentions in passing, in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia,

On the whole, writers find other writers hard to be enthusiastic about, even when the other writers are safely dead. It takes security in one’s talent on top of generosity of soul. … Martin Amis’s praise of Saul Bellow is especially valuable because the younger writer is continually faced, when reading the older one, with things he himself would like to have said.

2. Hitchens and James both note the absence of a restraining female presence at the Friday lunch: “It was a very competitive scene, though,” James writes, “and therefore very male.” This naturally brings to mind Hitchens’s famously shit-stirring Vanity Fair article on why women aren’t funny. His argument boils down to: because they don’t have to be.

M.

In previous entries I’ve discussed Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Martin Amis’s relationship with his father.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Stanley and the Women, and why Martin Amis didn’t like it.

I read Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women with curiosity. All I knew of it was what Martin Amis had said in his 2000 memoir Experience, that it was “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized”, that with its “programmatic gynophobia” his father had effectively announced the “cancellation of his own artistic androgyny”.

kingsley amis stanley and the women

Although Martin suggests these failings are evident from page one, for me it wasn’t until the end of the book that Kingsley’s agenda became apparent. True, the chief villain is a woman, a psychologist who lectures Stanley, whose schizophrenic son she’s treating, on the defects of his generation’s childrearing methods:

“Of course with changing social conditions the elitist role of education is passing too.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Nowadays there’s much more emphasis on the social function, training the kids to relate to each other and preparing them to take their places in the adult world.”

“At my school we got that thrown in, just by being there. We didn’t attend classes in it.”

“No, and we can see the results, can’t we?”

I thought about it. “Can we?” She probably meant sexism and censorship and things like that.

And true, other female characters are characterized as undependable, irrational, vindictive, and self-deluding. The men, meanwhile, even the minor characters, routinely take Stanley aside to share their unflattering take on gender relations. A police superintendent, after an encounter with the security chief of a Middle Eastern embassy:

“You know, Mr Duke, from a personal point of view, speaking just for myself you understand, the Major Fuads of this world have got one thing to be said not for them at all, just about them. They do seem to have got the women problem sorted out nice and neat. Whether you like it or not.”

An Irishman Stanley finds standing in the rain, kicking and punching a wall:

“The wife’s being a little bit provoking … you know, feminine. Now whenever that happens I don’t say a word, I come straight outside wherever I may be and I do what I just been doing for two minutes, and then I go back in the full joy of spring. When I got married I told myself I could be happy or I could be right, and I’ve been happy now for twenty-two years.”

In his memoir Martin mentions a recurring theme of Kingsley’s around the time he was writing Stanley:

It made my head drop, during this time, when my father, elaborately and not entirely unmordantly, started to liken women to the USSR (department of propaganda): when they do it they say this; when you do it they say that; and so on.

A variant of this made it into the novel. Here’s Stanley on the challenge of maintaining cordial relations with his self-absorbed ex-wife:

I remembered Cliff Wainwright saying once that women were like the Russians – if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace, and if you ever stood up to them you were resorting to cold-war tactics and pursuing imperialistic designs and interfering in their internal affairs. And by the way of course peace was more peaceful, but if you went on promoting its cause long enough you ended up Finlandized at best.

The hero is unshocked by opinions like his friend Cliff’s, but he generously continues to make allowances for the females around him. If most of those females are “fucky nuck cases” (to quote a barroom interlocutor), at least Stanley’s wife is a paragon of good humour and well-adjustedness. I suppose it should have been more obvious to me as I read that finally she too would go off the rails, and so she does, precipitating Stanley’s acquiescence, at novel’s end, to Cliff’s resentful maunderings:

“According to some bloke on the telly the other night,” he said, “twenty-five per cent of violent crime in England and Wales is husbands assaulting wives. Amazing figure that, don’t you think? You’d expect it to be more like eighty per cent. Just goes to show what an easy-going lot English husbands are, only one in four of them bashing his wife. No, it doesn’t mean that, does it? But it’s funny about wife-battering. Nobody ever even asks what the wife had been doing or saying. She’s never anything but an ordinary God-fearing woman who happens to have a battering husband. Same as race prejudice. Here are a lot of fellows who belong to a race minding their own business and being as good as gold and not letting butter melt in their mouths, and bugger me if a gang of prejudiced chaps don’t rush up and start discriminating against them. Frightfully unfair.”

So I see what Martin Amis means when he talks about the novel’s “programmatic gynophobia”. I can also see how, with just the perfect tilt of one’s irony antennae, one might detect in Stanley a subtle satire of discombobulated manhood. Martin floated this possibility by his father:

– And by the way. There’s a huge piece in the London Review by Marilyn Butler saying that Stanley is pro-women after all. That’s balls, isn’t it.

– Oh, absolutely.

Martin’s verdict on Stanley and its similarly-themed predecessor Jake’s Thing:

The critique of womankind that seeps its way through Jake and Stanley is certainly not without interest or pertinence (both novels are sinisterly vigorous). … My objection to these novels is simpler than that: I can feel Dad’s thumb on the scales.

Of course, the author’s thumb is always on the scales, that’s how fiction happens. Books don’t write themselves, characters don’t dictate their own actions, however much it sometimes feels that way to an author in thrall to inspiration. Ultimately it’s you making your characters do and say particular things to achieve some intended effect, whether it’s to advance the plot or to make some didactic point, like Kingsley’s point that women are fucky nuck cases.

It’s no good to say that didacticism is itself a failing – Martin has himself written didactic fiction about the Holocaust, nuclear weapons (both of these things bad, let’s agree), and, over and over again, the delusions and dislocations of modern English manhood (also pretty bad). Nor is it a question of having to agree with the lesson the author is imparting. One can read Dickens or Jane Austen and be entirely unconvinced by the supposed moral conundrums faced by their characters – what are one’s obligations to a daughter who has dishonoured herself? what should be one’s attitude to a friend who marries a person of lower social station? – yet still respond to the books as literature.

Dickens and Austen are undoubtedly didactic authors – great ones. The problem with bad didactic authors like Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, say, is they’re clumsily didactic. Their characters say unbelievable things because their authors don’t have the skill to render any voice besides their own.

I guess that’s sort of Martin’s complaint about Stanley. It’s not the presence of his father’s thumb, it’s that he can feel it, Kingsley’s stubby digit, poking his characters in the ribs, reminding them to stick to the script. I don’t doubt that Martin Amis has subtler sensitivities than me. But I never noticed it, Kingsley’s thumb. It’s as well-hidden to me as it is in all his other novels, in every one of which, in just as ruthless a fashion, he prods his men and women along a preordained path toward a destiny he’s decided for them.

Stanley‘s women are wicked, as women sometimes are. Their creator is only showing a partial picture, of course, but that’s what a novel always by necessity is.

M.

Update, July 27, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

So did the Red Army really singlehandedly defeat the Third Reich?

This bugs me. It’s Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in The National Interest:

The idea that the United States was the savior of Europe in World Wars I and II is popular in some circles on both sides of the Atlantic, but is demonstrably false. Between the formal entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 and the last German offensive in March 1918, hundreds of thousands of Entente soldiers were killed, mainly British in the summer and autumn of 1917 after the frightful slaughter of the French army in the spring; and in that period of nearly a year, fewer than two hundred Americans died. In the course of that war, the Frenchmen killed defending their country were twice as numerous as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war taken together from 1776 until today. As a matter of historical fact, the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies. Even though over one hundred thirty-five thousand American GIs died – a startling figure today – between D day and V-E day, more than half a million Russians were killed.

If Wheatcroft had expressed his point less categorically – if he’d written that the Third Reich was defeated primarily by the Red Army – I wouldn’t have blinked. I’ve read this before; I thought it was the conventional wisdom. But seeing it described as “a matter of historical fact” made me pause. How do we measure the “historical fact” of the Allies’ relative contributions to the victory over Nazism? [1]

According to Wheatcroft, it’s measured by counting the number of casualties each country suffered. The Soviets lost more soldiers than the Americans; therefore the Soviets deserve the larger share of the victory.

Strange, I would’ve thought the measure of military success was the number of enemy soldiers you killed.

It’s true that the Soviet Union sacrificed more to defeat Hitler than any other country. But much of that sacrifice was wasted. Millions of Soviets died through the incompetence and brutality of their own political masters. It was Stalin’s blindness to Hitler’s pre-invasion manoeuvres that allowed the Germans to occupy Russia’s industrial heartland at a stroke. Only then, with reluctance, did Stalin shift his attention from killing his own citizens to killing Germans. His tactics, if they can be dignified with that name, involved throwing masses of underequipped men virtually under the treads of invading panzers. To retreat was a crime against the motherland: in 1941 and ’42, according to the historian Dmitri Volkogonov, 157,593 men were executed for “cowardice”. [2]

(How many Americans were executed for desertion in World War II? One: Eddie Slovik. Were the Americans that much braver than their Soviet allies? Of course not – thousands in fact deserted – but the US Army was more prudent in its valuation of a soldier’s life.)

This doesn’t diminish the Soviets’ contribution to the war effort, which was vast and decisive. In fact it’s even more marvelous what they accomplished, given the handicaps imposed by their leaders. Without the Soviet contribution, the western democracies probably couldn’t have defeated Hitler’s armies on their own. But could the Soviets, fighting on their own, have defeated Hitler – say, if the democracies had capitulated after the fall of France?

***

Perhaps a better way to compare the effectiveness of the western and eastern armies is not to compare Allied deaths but to compare German deaths. Estimates vary widely, but since I’m looking for a ratio rather than a total, one source will do as well as another. For military deaths only:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies [3]
2,742,909 534,683

This limited comparison (which excludes casualties among Italian and other Axis forces, as well as Germans killed in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Germany itself [4]) suggests that the Red Army was roughly 5.5 times as lethal as the other Allied forces combined. This is a somewhat more convincing argument for Wheatcroft’s claim that “the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies”.

However. At the end of the war, the Allied democracies held over twice as many German prisoners of war as the Soviets – 7.7 millions versus 3.1 million, according to this chart.  This makes sense, because the war in the east was far more brutal. Soviet soldiers were likelier to execute prisoners, and German soldiers were likelier to fight to the bitter end, knowing their chance of surviving Soviet captivity was slim. At the close of the war, as defeat became inevitable, German strategy was based partly on the recognition that their countrymen would be better off surrendering to the Americans or Brits.

Still, conceding that a POW has been removed from combat just as effectively as a KIA, let’s reevaluate those figures:

Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
5,870,289 8,201,683

By this calculation, the Allied democracies were almost one and a half times as effective at neutralizing German soldiers as their Red Army counterparts.

But those POW figures are distorted by the fact that at the end of the war, most German military units surrendered to whichever occupying power they happened to find themselves facing. Maybe a still better way to compare Soviet and Anglo-American military effectiveness would be to add up casualties and POWs taken in action.

This page offers some insight. I’ve combined the data from Tables 5 and 6:

Killed in action Missing KIA + missing
Eastern front: 1,105,987 1,018,365 2,124,352
West + southwest: 157,523 603,695 761,488

(These data omit the final months of the war, and also exclude Navy and Air Force deaths.) Note that on Germany’s eastern front the number of confirmed deaths slightly exceeds the number of missing, while in the west and southwest (i.e. western Europe, Italy, and Africa) the number of missing is almost four times the number of confirmed deaths. I interpret this to mean that the bulk of the missing in the west and southwest were taken prisoner. [5]

If that’s true, then about 26% of German ground troops were removed from action, one way or another, by the democratic Allies. Throw in naval and air casualties, most of which were sustained in western Europe and the Mediterranean, and you’ve got the western democracies responsible for perhaps 30% of German manpower losses through the end of January, 1945 – which doesn’t include the final push into Germany.

***

Of course, this is only one way to compare the wartime contributions of the Soviet Union and western Europe, and I recognize that it’s incomplete. Another way of looking at it would be to say, “Regardless of how many German soldiers the Soviets killed or captured, they tied up the bulk of the Third Reich’s military capacity.” It’s no great achievement to take a German bullet, but that’s one less bullet the Germans have to fire elsewhere. The Red Army held off the Germans at the critical point in the war, allowing the Americans and Brits to get organized and open up a second front.

To admit that the Nazis were defeated by the efforts of all the Allies doesn’t take anything away from the sacrifices of the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War. Millions of Russians died so that millions of Americans didn’t have to. But the suggestion that the United States was somehow an idle bystander in the conflict is nonsensical and offensive. [6]

Am I being too hard on Geoffrey Wheatcroft? He’s only trying to debunk the myth that American GIs dealt Nazism its greatest blow on the cliffs of Omaha Beach. The specific comment that he’s responding to comes from Pascal Bruckner in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Bruckner writes (as quoted by Wheatcroft) that

without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, [Europe] would have been purely and simply wiped off the map […]

Obviously Bruckner is being hyperbolical here – even a Nazi-dominated Europe would still have been Europe, “purely and simply” in the geographical sense. But Bruckner doesn’t attribute the entire victory to the Americans, he only says their help staved off certain defeat. I think this is a less disputable position than the one Wheatcroft is advancing as “a matter of historical fact”.

What’s more, a peek at the original text (courtesy of Google Books) reveals that Wheatcroft is leaving a crucial clause out of Bruckner’s argument. Here’s the sentence in full (emphasis is mine):

Europe suffers, with respect to its American cousin, from the debtor’s complex. It is clearly understood, at least in Western Europe, that without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, it would have been purely and simply wiped off the map or permanently colonized by Soviet troops.

Bruckner’s untruncated point is that a western Europe left to shift for itself in the 1940s would have been screwed either way – if not screwed by Hitler, then screwed by Stalin, like Poland and Czechoslovakia and all the other countries “liberated” by the Red Army. The presence of three and a half million American servicemen and women (and billions of dollars of aid) helped assure the survival of European freedom, in its western half at least.

It bugs me that this truth bugs Geoffrey Wheatcroft so much.

M.

1. I’m not going to analyze Wheatcroft’s comments about World War I, because I know less about that conflict, but I suspect he’s on firmer ground there.

2 This and other details of Stalin’s ghastly war leadership can be found in Martin Amis’ Koba The Dread (pp. 195-212). See also Part I, Chapter 6 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

3. “Killed by other Allies” includes all German deaths in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Africa, plus those killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. “Killed by Soviets” includes figures from the eastern front only. I’ve excluded deaths in the Balkans and Scandinavia as they don’t fall neatly into either column, and anyway the numbers aren’t big enough to significantly skew the totals.

4. This is a big caveat. According to the same chart, 1,230,045 German soldiers died in the defense of their homeland in 1945. Assuming they died in the same ratio as those killed in the wider war – about 5.5 killed by Soviets for every 1 killed by the other Allies – then the totals look something like this:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies
3,772,297 735,340
Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
6,899,677 8,402,340

5. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting these figures. If you can think of another explanation for the far higher rate of “missing” troops in the western and southwestern theatres, please let me know.

6. I’ve left out of this discussion the armaments, food, and other assistance supplied to the Allies by the United States under the lend-lease program. I can’t find a webpage that discusses in any but the vaguest terms what percentage of Soviet, British, and other Allied war materiel was provided by the USA. This page – the third chapter of a pamphlet called How Shall Lend-Lease Accounts Be Settled? published by the US Army in 1945 – provides an overview of lend-lease, then adds:

This does not mean that our major allies – except for the revived French army which was almost completely equipped under lend-lease – were mainly dependent on American supplies. It has been estimated that lend-lease provided only 10 percent of British war equipment, and certainly a lesser proportion of Soviet materiel.

But in 1945, for domestic political reasons, the US government had reason to downplay how much the Soviet Union’s military capabilities had been augmented by its support. According to this page, the United States provided $11 billion worth of supplies to the Soviet war effort, in the form of locomotives, tanks, aircraft, trucks, and artillery, amounting to “almost 10% of all Russian war materiel.”

Update, July 27, 2020: Reconnected a number of dead links, but some of my sources seem to have disappeared from the internet since 2010.

Nancy Mitford (and Milk In First).

I’ve now read Nancy Mitford’s three most famous novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), and most recently The Blessing (1951). She’s a very funny writer. Her themes are love and marriage, but she is rigorously unromantic about romance – and especially so about children.

nancy mitford the pursuit of love

Here is the narrator of The Pursuit of Love paying a visit to the book’s heroine, Linda, soon after the birth of her child:

[The nurse] went away and presently returned carrying a Moses basket full of wails.

“Poor thing,” said Linda indifferently. “It’s really kinder not to look.”

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” said the Sister. “She pretends to be a wicked women, but it’s all put on.”

I did look, and deep down among the frills and lace, there was the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig.

“Isn’t she sweet,” said the Sister. “Look at her liitle hands.”

I shuddered slightly, and said:

“Well, I know it’s dreadful of me, but I don’t much like them as small as that; I’m sure she’ll be divine in a year or two.”

The wails now entered on a crescendo, and the whole room was filled with hideous noise.

“Poor soul,” said Linda. “I think it must have caught sight of itself in a glass. Do take it away, Sister.”

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are centred on an unruly brood of rural aristocrats, the Radletts, young girls (the boys don’t figure much) who gossip in closets, heave dramatic sighs, and speak in a spirited pidgin of romance-novel dialogue and tabloid newspaper headlines. In Love in a Cold Climate, the Radletts’ neighbour, rich and beautiful Polly Hampton, exasperates her parents with her disinclination to marry. Expected to snag minor royalty at least, Polly remains mysteriously untroubled as the London seasons come and go, her less eligible competitors are all wedded, and her mother Lady Montdore becomes ever more furious with mortification.

nancy mitford love in a cold climate

It comes out later that Polly has been pining since adolescence for her uncle-by-marriage, the creepy Boy Dougdale, known to the Radlett girls as the “Lecherous Lecturer” after they attend one of his talks at the local Women’s Institute:

“But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.”

The Lecherous Lecturer is tolerated despite his lech for little girls. Time passes, Boy’s wife dies, and Polly pounces, to her mother’s horror and the scandal of all. Boy’s past indiscretions with kitchen maids and neighbourhood girls are nothing beside his poaching of the most beautiful heiress of her generation. The level-headed Uncle Davey urges a less popular view – one that would be still less popular in our day, obsessed as we are with the sexual purity of the young:

“Personally, and speaking as an uncle, the one I feel for over all this is the unhappy Boy. … He can’t be expected to guess that because he strokes the hair of a little girl when she’s fourteen she’s going to insist on marrying him when she grows up. Bad luck on a chap I call it.”

Polly’s and Boy’s marriage is not a success, but neither is it a tragedy. In Mitford’s world all passions cool (except the passion of English girls for dashing Frenchmen, see below), and as the novel ends Polly is reconciling with her mother and infatuated with another age-inappropriate suitor.

nancy mitford the blessing

The Blessing concerns the marriage of a naïve English girl to a debonair French aristocrat. Halfway through the book, the heroine, exasperated with her husband’s infidelity, takes their young son, the “blessing” of the title, and runs home to England. Little Sigismond, heretofore under the smothering care of his English nanny, has been a fleeting presence, instructed to “run along now” when noticed by his father. Now shuttled back and forth between England and France, Sigi revels in being the centre of his newly estranged parents’ attention, his tantrums indulged, his wishes granted, his pockets stuffed with bribes from their suitors. The child makes it his mission to prolong the estrangement, by deceit if necessary.

At the climax of the book, as his parents appear ready to reconcile, Sigi just fails in his attempt to get his father arrested for smuggling. The novel’s final words – a belated victory for grown-up civilisation over the tyranny of the Kinderarchy – are his father’s, “And now, please run along and find Nanny.”

***

Uncle Matthew, the loveably tyrannical Radlett paterfamilias in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, hews to the old aristocratic customs under which his female offspring are kept home and taught by a governess. He has a low opinion of the narrator, Fanny, educated at a day school in the modern manner:

“Education! I was always led to suppose that no educated person ever spoke of notepaper, and yet I hear poor Fanny asking Sadie for notepaper. What is this education? Fanny talks about mirrors and mantelpieces, handbags and perfume, she takes sugar in her coffee, has a tassel on her umbrella. … It’s a lucky thing that Fanny will have £15,000 a year of her own. … She’ll get a husband all right, even if she does talk about lunch, and envelope, and put the milk in first.”*

Here we get into the author’s other great theme, the idiosyncrasies of the upper class. Though we share a common language, and only a half-century separates us from Mitford’s world, these customs are as mystifying to modern North American readers (and, I suspect, to most British ones) as those of the Aztecs or Zulus. While I can easily recognise the humourous tone, what am I to make of this passage in The Blessing where a snobbish Frenchman shares with our heroine his impressions of the British class system?

“In England, as we know, everybody has a number, so when you give a dinner it is perfectly easy to place your guests – you look up the numbers, seat them accordingly, and they just dump down without any argument, Placement, such a terrible worry to us in France, never bothers you at all.”

“Are you sure,” said Grace, “about these numbers? I’ve never heard of them. Placement doesn’t bother us because nobody minds where they sit, at home.”

“People always mind. I mean the numbers in the beginning of the peerage. I subscribe to your peerage, such a beautiful book, and then I know where I am with English visitors.”

Does Grace’s confusion signify common sense, or naïveté? So ignorant that she doesn’t even know how many dukes there are in her country, Grace quickly gets a reputation around Paris society as a dimwit; to what extent is that reputation deserved? We sympathise with her, of course, because the Parisians’ obsession with heredity and Placement is absurd. Yet Mitford’s famous essay “The English Aristocracy” begins with a discussion of “precedence” – knights and baronets take precedence after lords, “except Knights of the Garter who come after the eldest sons and the daughters of barons, but before the younger sons.” This precedence might not determine who sits where at a dinner party, but one can hardly blame the Frenchman for his mistake.

nancy mitford noblesse oblige

In the same essay, Mitford helpfully expands on Uncle Matthew’s list of linguistic vulgarities. In the formulation she borrows from Professor Alan Ross, certain words are U and non-U (upper- and non-upper-class):

Non-U U
Home House
Ill Sick
Mental Mad
Mirror Looking-glass
Preserve Jam
Serviette Table-napkin
Wealthy Rich
Dentures False teeth
Glasses Spectacles

(Concluding her list, Mitford delivers us fully into despair with the information that “the issue is sometimes confused by U-speakers using non-U indicators as a joke. Thus Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love speaks of his dentures.”)

If there is any common thread running through this list, it is a tendency of the middle-class speaker to prefer the fancy way of saying something, while the upper-class speaker prefers the plain: serviette vs. napkin, dentures vs. false teeth. In other words, the opposite of what you’d expect. Perhaps this vocabulary – out of date already at the end of World War II, if Evelyn Waugh’s answering essay “An Open Letter to the Honourable Mrs. Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject” is to be believed – marked a reaction by the upper classes to the usurpation of high-flown language by social climbing bourgeois: “If they think they can fool us with their fancy talk, we’ll turn the tables on them!” But really, it’s impossible for me to guess how these rules originated, or how seriously they were taken. Mitford’s essay, like Waugh’s reply (and all the other essays assembled in the Mitford-edited collection Noblesse Oblige), is pervaded with an irony impenetrable to this distant, middle-class colonial. When Mitford writes,

Silence is the only possible U-response to many embarrassing modern situations: the ejaculation of “cheers” before drinking, for example, or “it was so nice seeing you”, after saying goodbye. In silence, too, one must endure the use of the Christian name by comparative strangers and the horror of being introduced by Christian and surname without any prefix. This unspeakable usage sometimes occurs in letters – Dear XX – which, in silence, are quickly torn up, by me.

…is she mocking herself, mocking her stuffy fellow aristos, or lamenting what she really sees as an “unspeakable” vulgarity? I suspect there are elements of all three, but I’ll be damned if I can tell where the mockery ends and the lamentation begins. To me it’s all Uncle Matthew and his dentures.

M.

* Funny how relics of these arbitrary rules survive even to our own time. I have heard Canadians insist that the “proper” way to serve tea was to add the milk first – a symptom of our ineradicable conviction, as universal in the United States as it is here, that the British way of doing things signifies class, as opposed to the slouching American way. In this instance, it is amusing to observe, the class to which modern tea-servers aspire is that of their middle-class British forebears, whom Uncle Matthew would be loth to allow through the front door.

Evelyn Waugh in his “Open Letter” speculates on the origins of the tea-first prejudice:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic.

While George Orwell – uncharacteristically silent on the sociological implications – in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea”, makes the case for tea-before-milk:

[O]ne should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Me, I put the milk in next-to-last – followed, pace Orwell, by the sugar.

Update, Sept 21 2011: Another and more recent reference to the class implications of milk-first versus tea-first appears in Martin Amis’ Experience.

martin amis experience

In a footnote he recalls a conversation with his “well-born” childhood friend Rob:

It was a bad thing to be miffy. Being miffy meant you were the kind of person who, when pouring a cup of tea, habitually put the Milk In First.

M: And that’s common [working class], is it?
R: Yeah.
M: Why?
R: I’m not sure. It just is.
M: …What happens when you put the milk in second and the tea’s too strong and there’s not enough room in the cup to make it milky?
R: Then you get up and pour some of it down the sink and go back and try again.

This must have been the late ’60s, early ’70s. In a separate footnote, Amis frets, “But, lor, how much stuff there was about class in those days. Whatever else she did, Margaret Thatcher helped weaken all that. Mrs. Thatcher, with her Cecils, with her Normans, with her Keiths.”

Update, Aug 8 2014: Rod Dreher points me to Carl Zimmer writing in the Nautilus about Why We Can’t Rule Out Bigfoot. It’s actually a discussion of a method of scientific experimentation known as the “null hypothesis”, a term introduced by the pioneering English geneticist Ronald Fisher.

The null hypothesis turns out to have its roots in a dispute over whether a fellow scientist could really taste the difference, as she claimed, between a cup of tea poured milk-in-first and one poured milk-in-last. Fisher tested the scientist’s miffiness by pouring four cups of tea milk-in-first and four cups milk-in-last, scrambling the cups three-card monte style, and asking her to say which was which. She correctly categorized all eight cups.

Read Zimmer’s article to see what this has to do with the existence of Bigfoot.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

In August 2008 I wrote about missing the finer points when reading older books, including those of Evelyn Waugh.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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