Arthur and Lila Weinberg,
(University of Illinois)The Weinberg's have cooked up a worthy summary out of the heyday of investigative reporters of a hundred years ago called "muckrakers." They've excerpted here thirty of the most famous magazine articles of the time: Ida Tarbell on the Standard Oil Trust, Upton Sinclair on the meat-packing industry, Lincoln Steffens on Boss Tweed --- and a host of less famous writers describing shenanigans in the stock market, violent union organizers, fraudulent patent medicine companies, and workman's compensation (or lack of it).Czar Cannon of the U. S. House of Representatives is taken to task, and there is a full report by George Kibbe Turner on what was called "white slavery" --- where poor ladies were kidnapped and sent off to houses of prostitution in places like Paris or Buenos Aires.The interesting thing here is the fact that the writings of the more well-known of the journalists such as Tarbell and Steffens do not age well. Ms. Tarbell spent four years researching her articles on the Standard Oil Trust for McClure's Magazine. (They eventually totaled 19 in number). But they are crammed with facts on such arcane subjects as rail-rate manipulation through secret agreements, so carefully laid out that one is reminded of the somewhat tedious "Reporter at Large" articles that appeared in The New Yorker in the latter days of the stewardship of William Shawn.
§ § §The more interesting articles come to us from the pens of the unknown. For instance, Ray Stannard Baker wrote an engrossing article for American Magazine in 1907 on race relations in Atlanta, shortly after a riot had taken place. Many of his insights, presented simply and effectively, could have been written fifty years later.
In Savannah, Jim Crow ordinances have gone into effect for the first time, causing violent protestations on the part of Negroes and a refusal by many of them not to use the cars at all.He quotes a sign that appeared over the door of each street car,
WHITE PEOPLE WILL SEAT FROM FRONT OF CAR TOWARDS THE BACK, AND COLORED PEOPLE FROM REAR TOWARD FRONT.
His take on the effectiveness of the restrictions:
Sure enough, I found the white people in front and the Negroes behind. As the sign indicates, there is no definite line of division between the white seats and the black seats, as in many other Southern cities, This very absence of a clear demarcation is significant of many relationships in the south. The color line is drawn, but neither race knows just where it is. [Author's emphasis.]
He points out that "the new Negro" has begun to join forces with his own:
The old-fashioned Negro preferred to go to the white man for everything; he didn't trust his own people; the new Negro, with growing race consciousness, and feeling that the white man is against him, urges his friends to patronize Negro doctors and dentists, and to trade with Negro storekeepers.
Baker also published a highly readable article on the railroads, how they cornered public opinion and managed to destroy editors who wrote deleterious articles about them. And Charles Edward Russell writes a moving story --- albeit with a bit of overheated prose about "chalk-faced children" playing under "weary trees" with "uncertain grass" --- on Trinity Church in New York. The church owned hundreds of tenement houses around the city, and fought vigorously any effort to clean them up. There is also a Russell piece on the Georgia prison system. The state rented out the labor of most of its prisoners to contracting companies who ran operations that don't sound all that distant from Dachau.
William Hard writes on the making of steel, and the agony of the workers who are ill-protected from faulty equipment. As with so many of these muckraking stories, it is the detail that provides what the reader needs to understand exactly why he or she should be enraged. Here he is addressing himself to the question of why a hook on a "slag pot" operated by the Illinois Steel Company slipped off:
It was attached merely to the rim of the pot, and not to the lugs. That pot had no lugs. It ought to have had them. Lugs are pieces of metal that project from the rim of the pot, like ears. They are put there for the express purpose of providing a proper and secure hold for the hooks. But they had been broken off in some previous accident and they had not been replaced.
Note the simple, teacherly repetitive language. Hard is not only a reformer, but an instructor here --- instructing the reader on how equipment in steel mills is supposed to work, and how, through company negligence, it does not.
The editors' comments before each chapter are effective in setting the scene for the essays. One is struck by how many magazines --- the authors list twelve or thirteen --- participated in this phase of American journalism, compared to the present day, where muckraking magazines can be counted on the fingers of one hand.--- Rose W. TilleyFlights of Love
Translated by John E. Woods
(Pantheon)We weren't too impressed by Schlink's earlier book --- The Reader. Despite a gush of praise out of the New York Literary Chowder & Marching Society, we found the tale of a German boy and his older love-lady (who, it turned out, had worked in a concentration camp) to be slow moving, labored.
Thus, we picked this one up with reluctance, but, with most of the seven stories, found enough to keep us entertained, and --- in a couple of cases --- decided that they were worth the price of the book.
In "The Other Man," Benner is now retired. His wife, a violin player of some note, has just died of cancer. There comes a note in the mail addressed to her from "Rolf." The contents let us know that many years ago, he had been lover to Lisa. He never knew she had a lover, so Benner writes back as if he were Lisa. He then goes to Rolf's city in southern Germany, identifies him from photographs he finds in Lisa's desk, and strikes up a friendship with him. This is where the story --- one of those plotlines out of de Maupassant --- gets rich.
For us, Benner had been a fairly sympathetic character, and Rolf turns out to be not only a loser, a man with but two suits (who wears a corset to hide his belly), but, too, a con man --- one agile at siphoning money from women like Lisa: he had extracted 50,000 marks from her.
But Rolf also turns out to be kind, a man who exalted in her talent:
He had truly seen what a wonderful violinist she was...He did not make things prettier, he found them beautiful, found beauty where others failed to recognize, and he applied the attributes that others used to express their wonder, to express his own.
As we get to know him, we begin to admire his talent, and, yes, his ability as a con-man. And we begin to see what a cold fish Benner is. Rolf fell in love with Lisa "because this delicate woman had played with such power, clarity, and passion that he felt he had to share in some of it." Her husband, on the other hand, immersed in his own work, ignored her playing, her concerts; ignored her so much that she was able to have a secret lover, which he found out about only after her death. Rolf says, tellingly,
She was happy with me. And I'll tell you why that was. Because I am a braggart, a blowhard, a loser. Because I'm not the monster of efficiency, righteousness, and peevishness that you are. Because I make the world pretty. You see only what it presents to you on the surface, and not what's hidden underneath.
§ § §
"Sugar Peas" gets its title from a poem by Heinrich Heine,
sugar peas for everyone,
when once the shells burst open...
Thomas, a rich and famous bridge builder and artist, ends up with wife, family, and two mistresses. One day, it gets to him --- this juggling act --- so he dons a cassock, runs away from them and then, a year later, in a terrible accident (his cassock gets caught in the door of a train, he is dragged across the platform and paralyzed). During rehab, he learns something profound:
When, despite his learning, his will, and his discipline, he developed the third of the sores common to paraplegics, he knew that he would no longer be able to depend on his body.
However, after his disappearance, his wife and his two mistresses joined forces, and using his name, created "TTT," a powerful, growing corporation. They come to retrieve him from rehab, stick him in an apartment to which he doesn't have the key. In other words, after being had by him, they now have him. As mistress Helga says,
You're a cripple in a wheelchair and you need help. You're going to have around-the-clock help. And we'll take you on vacations and for rides, and if you want a particular video or want to eat spaghette alla puttanesca, you'll get whatever you want.
But there is a price that he is now going to have to pay for their care. He has to yield up his freedom, his wandering ways:
Don't be silly and force us to turn off the elevator and cut telephone service or let you develop a bed sore or two or a urinary tract infection...you'll be stuck up here, without an elevator or telephone, and we'll have shutters put on the windows. If you want to be that stupid, then be that stupid...
At first, he wants to resist:
He rolled onto the terrace, stuck his head over the railing, and called down, "Hello, hello!" No one heard him. He could slide down the stairs without his wheelchair. He could throw things down onto the street until some pedestrians noticed. He could use large drawing paper to make a Help! sign and hang it from the terrace railing.
But then he begins to reflect on what it will be like in his apartment, the three women taking over his successful businesses, making them even more successful --- watching over him, caring for him:
He looked over to the Reichstag. Tiny people were moving up and down the spiral staircase inside the glass dome. They had healthy legs for walking. But he didn't envy them. He didn't envy the pedestrians on their healthy legs walking along the street and along the riverbanks below, either. The women would have to get him a cat or two. A couple of kittens. If they didn't, he would go on strike.--- I. J. PresleyThe Stranger
The Story of a
Small Community's Battle
Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights
(Beacon Press)In 1992, the Oregon's Citizens Alliance sponsored Measure 9, which would "deny civil rights protections to lesbians and gay men." It lost, but the next year, OCA sponsored similar initiatives in eight counties and three dozen small towns.
A year after that, Arlene Stein --- a sociologist --- undertook a study on the effects of the initiative on a city she calls "Timbertown." She undertook to meet with the proponents and the opponents --- to understand, as she reports,
how sexuality became a resonant symbol upon which a group of citizens projected a host of anxieties about the changing world around them, how it divided a small community, and what it tells us about our ability to live with difference.
This could be dry stuff, but Stein is an effective writer, and she is trained as a researcher. She paints a fascinating picture of a small northwestern town that has lost its focus. It was once an area of extensive industry --- mostly lumber --- which has, for a variety of reasons, fallen on hard times. Coupled with the fancied intrusion of new citizens (many from California), the older residents see a myriad of threats to their way of life, their freedoms, and the education of their children. The greatest fear of them all, at least to the fundamentalists, is "the homosexual agenda."
Stein willingly immerses herself in the world of people that you and I would strenuously avoid. In an Appendix wonderfully titled, "What's a Nice (Queer) Jewish Girl Doing in a Place Like This?" she reports:
During the course of nearly two years, I talked with holy-roller preachers, had heart-to-hearts with people who wept with joy when they told me how they found the Lord, and listened as individuals spun elaborate tales of apocalyptic end times.
She found that
it is often easier to talk to a stranger than a friend about issues close to one's heart, and that, despite my fears, being an outsider worked to my advantage. My Jewishness, in particular, marked me as an outsider, and deemed me a relatively respectable, and sometimes even exotic outsider, and gave my Christian interviewees the freedom to express opinions about the world --- that were both honest and forthright.
About her own sexual orientation, she was relatively cautious:
Perhaps my Jewishness was more than enough for them to handle at one time, for they rarely if ever questioned me about my personal life, or my sexuality. Sally Humphries asked me if I was married, to which I replied yes. (It was true that I had been living with my partner for ten years. So what if she's a woman.)
We get the feeling that there were moments when her apparent neutrality was strained: "I never challenged people --- even when I found their opinions misguided, reprehensible, or downright evil."
When Erica Williams went on at great length about the fact that most of Hitler's SS henchmen were homosexuals, I gritted my teeth and nodded. When a preacher railed against cities and "the gays, Asians, New Agers, and other undesirables" that populate them, I bit my lip.
§ § §
Her conclusions? That the traditional underpinnings of middle or lower middleclass life are evaporating --- hastened by the economic catastrophes that have visited many of the families in Timbertown. Citizens, concerned about a fragmented community, turn to religion to rebuild a base. The religious right, with new sophistication, paints its members as the new minority --- those who were threatened by legislation to offer preferential treatment to minorities, including gays and lesbians. The OCA
evoked such tried and true conservative values as moral strength and respect for authority, fusing economic and cultural conservatism with appeals to hegemonic masculinity and whiteness.
Even though a more liberal group rose up to fight the impending initiative, it failed to successfully challenge the claim that "heterosexuality alone is normal, natural, and beautiful."
The media, of course, played a crucial role in all this, for they
concentrated on images of extremes, playing up the most dramatic, most radical elements of both sides, feasting on name calling and conflict.
And, most profoundly, the "homosexual threat," once named,
quickly became a focus of people's passions, and even those who had little interest in the issue were drawn into the fray...Many people became convinced that a rising tide of perversity was at least partially responsible for the unsettling changes they saw around them.
There is a wonderful honesty in Stein's reporting, as she, for example, conveys the sense of warmth she felt emanating from Evangelicals. They express, "through words and deeds, how important they are to one another. They kiss and sooth one another's aching souls. I had never witnessed such heartfelt emotional displays among individuals who were unrelated to one another and I was often touched by them."
It was difficult, even for a seasoned cynic like myself, not to be encouraged by such signs of warmth --- they are in some respects a profoundly democratic impulse.
"It doesn't matter whether one is Presbyterian, Catholic or even Jewish," she concludes, "one can convert. It doesn't matter if one is homosexual --- one can renounce one's old, sinful life. Indeed, becoming born again is all about the renunciation of the old self and the construction of a new one.--- Ignacio Schwartz