Opus 194 (October 31, 2006). By way of celebrating the scary season, we take a long lingering look at a brand new biography of Mr. Macabre in Cartooning, The New Yorker’s Chas Addams. And we have a long critique of The Jungle, Peter Kuper’s graphic novel adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel, now concluding its centennial year. We also review the second volume of the Buz Sawyer reprinting project, Osamu Tezuka’s favorite graphic novel, and a collection of rejected New Yorker cartoons. And we list the Twenty-five Top Under-reported Newsstories of the last year and predict the results of the forthcoming mid-term election. Here’s what’s here, in order:
Prediction of Election Outcome
BIOGRAPHY OF CHAS ADDAMS
NOUS R US
Robinson Invents the Joker
Scott Adams Gets His Voice Back
Buz Sawyer Reprint, Vol. 2
Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novel
The Rejection Collection of New Yorker Cartoons
Civilization’s Last Outpost
More History of the Middle East Animosities
What Lawrence of Arabia Learned about Tribes
GRAFIC NOVIL: The Jungle
Twenty-five Under-reported Newsstories in 2005-2006
Onward, the Spreading Punditry
How Can You Fence an Ocean? And Should We?
Pols Try To Out-jesus Each Other
The National Religion
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—
Hallowe’en is the scariest night of the year; and a week later, on November 7, we have, this year, the scariest day of the year.
But I have little doubt about the outcome of the election. Despite all the wishful thinking being bandied about these days, the Republicans will retain control of both the House and the Senate. Yes, significant majorities of polled citizens want to try a new direction under Democrats, but those numbers reflect a sort of general dissatisfaction with Congress and the way the Invasion in Iraq is going. When it comes to voting in that little booth, most voters will retain the services of their current congressmen. Those guys, they think—we all think—are okay: it’s the other guys, the ones from other states, who are corrupt or stupid. Let the other voters, the ones in the other states, vote those scoundrels out of office. We’ll keep our nice guys on the job.
There. I’ve made a political prediction. Now let’s see how it turns out. Don’t forget to vote.
CHAS ADDAMS WITH MACABRE
And a Dash of the Diabolical
Charles Addams—who signed his cartoons of incongruous comedy “Chas Addams” and whose friends called him Charlie—would be pleased at the treatment he receives in Linda H. Davis’ Chas Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life (196 6x9-inch pages; Random House hardback, $29.95). She begins: “They say that Charles Addams slept in a coffin and drank martinis with eyeballs in them.” She continues with a litany of aberrant evidences of Addams’ peculiarity, citing the guillotine he was supposed to keep in his house, the chopped off fingers that fans sent him, and the monogrammed straitjacket he once received as a birthday gift, and then she describes the classic Addams cartoon, in which a ghoulish man shows up at the maternity ward to claim his offspring, telling the nurse, “Don’t bother to wrap it; I’ll eat it here.”
From the opening pages on, Davis perpetuates the legend of the macabre persona that Addams had created and assiduously cultivated for most of his life, earning him, as she says, “such sobriquets as ‘the Van Gogh of the Ghouls,’ ‘the Bella Lugosi of the cartoonists,’ ‘the graveyard guru,’ a purveyor of ‘American Gothic.’” Davis is Addams’ willing collaborator in this fond fraud, but she also points out, almost immediately, that the cartoonist never drew a cartoon with a ghoulish father contemplating his newborn offspring for dinner. “People swore that they had actually seen the maternity room cartoon,” Davis says, “but Addams had never drawn it.”
Much of Addams work was “funny without being dark,” she continues, “and marked by great sweetness,” but it was “the sinister stuff that had made him famous.”
True; most of us remember Addams as specializing in a bizarre brand of comedy founded upon the inexplicable in nature and the anti-social in mankind. In one unsettling cartoon, a skin diver comes across a giant bathtub plug (with chain) in the bottom of the ocean. In another cartoon, vultures perch in a tree at the edge of a precipice atop which a sign reads, "Lover's Leap." In yet another, a couple strolling through the woods see a bird house the size of a garage. And then, waiting outside the delivery room, a cloaked and beady-eyed bald man with tiny fang-like teeth is told by the nurse, "Congratulations—it's a baby."
Addams' cartoon children often engage in fiendish amusements. In a shop class where boys are making bird houses, one child is putting the finishing touches on a small coffin. In an art class where students are making clay figurines in the image of their model, one boy is sticking pins in his figurine. The same boy is shown on another occasion in a bathroom, reaching up to the medicine cabinet to dip an arrow in a bottle marked "Poison."
Addams' drawing style is individualistic but unassertive. His people are all a little stout and dumpy-looking. Sometimes even strange, alien. And a wash shrouds virtually every one of his pictures in somber hues of gray that seemed vaguely menacing.
Disconcerting, yes; Addams’ “cartoons of diabolical mein,” as Brendan Gill called them, clearly display a somewhat bent albeit engaging sense of humor. But as Davis’ book unfolds her tale of his life, Addams emerges as more bon vivant than ghoul. He assuredly fostered a reputation as the latter, but he lived the life of the former. And Davis works diligently to keep the ghoul alive as a sort of puckish goblin while introducing the affable and kindly man-about-town, sprinkling the book generously, soaking it, with colorful anecdotes and Addams’ own quirky comments.
Seated in a restaurant, Addams was approached by an attractive young woman who asked: “Aren’t you Charles Addams?”
“Well, I guess so,” he conceded.
“Don’t you spell that with two d’s?” she asked.
“Three d’s,” he told her.
Another time when he ran into photographer Tony Hollyman after having not seen him for a long time, Addams said: “Aren’t you still Hollyman?”
One of his numerous women friends told him that when people asked her about him, she told them he was very nice. Addams was appalled: “Lord, you’re going to ruin my reputation. Why don’t you describe me as having a faint scent of formaldehyde?”
Over lunch one day, fellow cartoonist Mort Gerberg asked Addams conversationally what he did over the weekend.
“Well, it was really such a nice day on Sunday,” Addams said, “I decided to take a friend for a drive—to Creedmore.” Creedmore is a state psychiatric facility in Queens.
“Gerberg wasn’t sure whether he was kidding,” Davis finished.
The book is rich with this sort of anecdotal insight, gleaned mostly, as 42 pages of notes at the end tell us, from the author’s interviews with Addams’ friends, scores of them.
Reporters frequently inquired into the conditions of Addams’ childhood, seeking the origins there of his fascination with the unusual. Addams admitted to a youthful interest in drawing skeletons and in roaming cemeteries, but apart from playing an occasional practical joke, his childhood, he insisted, was normal and healthy. Davis gives us both, entitling her first chapter, “Arrested at the Age of Eight,” and then explaining in the next, “A Normal American Boy,” how young Charlie with some of his friends had broken into a deserted Victorian mansion in his neighborhood and committed several acts of minor vandalism, which brought the law on him in the person of a cop knocking at the front door of his home.
“I had never seen a policeman with his hat off before,” Addams said, recalling that his mother had invited the officer into the house. “They took me down to the local court with the other children. My father paid the damages. It wasn’t really an arrest, but I like to think of it as one,” he concluded, revealing, as he often did, the tireless publicity campaign that he waged.
Addams was born Charles Samuel on January 7, 1912, in Westfield, New Jersey, the son of Charles Huey Addams, manager of a piano company, and Grace M. Spear. His father, who had studied to be an architect, encouraged young Charles to draw, and he did cartoons for the student paper at Westfield High School. He entered Colgate University in 1929 but transferred after a year to the University of Pennsylvania, which he left the following year to enroll in the Grand Central School of Art in New York, where he spent the next year (most of it, he once confessed, just "watching people" walk through Grand Central Terminal).
When his father died unexpectedly in May 1932, Addams left school to help fill the family coffers. He embarked upon a career as an illustrator, taking a job as staff artist for Macfadden’s True Detective magazine where he dabbled in “gangster gore,” doing lettering, retouching photographs, and drawing diagrams of crime scenes for $15 a week. “It was just a job,” he said later, denying that it affected his outlook on life or his sense of humor: “It didn’t hurt me.” But he confessed that he liked the photographs un-retouched, “with just a tad more blood and gore.” More self-promotion.
At the same time, he started submitting cartoons to various magazines. The New Yorker bought a spot drawing from him in 1932 for $7.50. Soon thereafter, Addams was selling regularly enough that he quit his job at Macfadden ("the last and only job I ever had," he said) to earn his livelihood solely as a freelance cartoonist. Although he sold cartoons to many magazines during the 1930s and 1940s, Addams is most closely associated with The New Yorker, where his autopsical sense of humor became a fixture. That magazine bought its first Addams cartoon in 1933—a picture of several hockey players, one of whom is standing on the ice in his stocking feet, saying to his teammate next to him, "I forgot my skates." A relatively innocuous joke in the Addams oeuvre. Addams thought it slight and not funny and was surprised The New Yorker bought it and published it in the issue dated February 4.
The cartoonist's popularity, however, began with the publication in the magazine for January 13, 1940 of a cartoon showing the parallel tracks of a skier leading directly up to a tree and then going around it, one track on either side. No caption, but Addams put a second skier in the cartoon, pausing in his ascent up the slope to stare in seeming disbelief at the ski trail. Addams admitted that he never quite understood the cartoon himself, but he was delighted that a Nebraska mental institution used the drawing to test the mental age of its patients. "Under a fifteen-year level, they can't tell what's wrong," Addams said. The second skier in the drawing is key to its success, the cartoonist explained: without the witness on hand, “you’re not sure that it really happened, and I think he gives it a logic that it would not have otherwise,” bringing it “into reality,” so to speak.
The phenomenon of the tracks is so astounding that we seldom notice that the skier who made them is still in the picture, just downhill from the tree a bit, slipping off the picture into limbo. And because we seem to have forgotten, or never actually noticed, this skier, most of us are surprised to realize that the skier is a woman. Or so it would seem. That’s surely a hank of hair waving in the slipstream behind the skier’s head, not a scarf. So if it’s a woman that Addams drew there, what does that mean for the mystery? Addams, as I said, professed not to understand any of it. Neither does Davis, but she notes that Addams’ skier came along after the skiers in several cartoons by other New Yorker cartoonists.
Given the effect “the Skier” had on his subsequent career, it is surprising to note, as Davis does, that the idea was not Addams’ but, probably, a New Yorker staff member’s. Davis had access to Addams’ notebooks in which he recorded sales and the amounts earned as well as the names of gag writers with whom he shared the proceeds. No name appears in his notebook, which, I gather, is what happened when the idea was conjured up by a staff member—or, perhaps, by Addams himself. But Davis asserts that “someone had pitched the idea to him, and he had drawn it.”
The magazine’s staff members, chiefly E.B. White and James Thurber, were usually the contributors of ideas for the cartoons, a practice that continued until the 1950s, when William Shawn inherited Ross’ mantle and decreed that cartoons, henceforth, would be the product of the cartoonist alone, unassisted by writers. In the 1930s, drawings and gags were often submitted as separate, individual entities. A cartoon rough submitted by one cartoonist might be finished by another, whose style was better suited to the subject. If a gag idea needed a crowd scene, Davis says, Carl Rose was frequently picked to draw the cartoon because he did crowd scenes so well. If someone sent in a gag about a middle-class matron, Helen Hokinson might get the assignment—or Mary Petty. Although both managed convincing matrons, there was a difference: “A Mary Petty dowager,” Davis says, “was to a Helen Hokinson matron what a hothouse flower was to a garden perennial.” In a career lasting over fifty years with The New Yorker, famed cartoonist George Price produced only one idea of his own for a cartoon, a cover drawing of store Santas commuting on the subway. Some of the magazine’s newer cartoonists initially felt disappointed when they learned that “the wizard wasn’t a wizard,” Davis reports—that Addams worked with purchased ideas. But they eventually came around to cartoonist Mischa Richter’s view: Addams, Richter felt, “was like ‘an actor doing a part’ written by another person.” Richard McCallister, a writer, and Herb Valen, an agent who found advertising commissions for cartoonists, were Addams’ chief idea men. But Addams’ most famous creations started, apparently, as his own inspiration.
In the late 1930s, Addams created the vaguely fiendish family for which he is usually remembered—“the Hallowe’en version of Norman Rockwell and Grand Wood,” as Wilfrid Sheed put it in his Foreword to The World of Chas Addams. The first to appear in the gloomy gothicky Victorian pile that writer Wolcott Gibbs called “a secret, dark and midnight manse” was the lady of the house, a spindle-shanked “glamour ghoul” (as critic John Mason Brown said) with lank locks and chalk-white skin in a hearse-black gown that melts into the floor. In the issue for August 6, 1938, Morticia, as she was christened later, has let a vacuum cleanersalesman into the house, and she watches as he demonstrates his product. “Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver,” he says, “—no well-appointed home should be without it.” The appointments of Morticia’s home we see before us: a creaky-looking staircase with fringe-shaded lamps on the newel posts, cobwebs clinging to their shades and to the broken baluster we see on the second floor, a strange female-looking character peering down through the gaps between posts. A bat flits overhead, and next to Morticia stands a hulking, bearded retainer, silent, sinister.
At the time of inspiration, Addams had no intention of developing a series about the occupants of the foreboding manse. But Harold Ross, the editor and founder of The New Yorker, encouraged Addams to do more in this vein. Still, Morticia didn’t make a second appearance until over a year later, in the November 25, 1939 issue. Now the retainer is the Frankensteinian butler who will eventually be called Lurch. Morticia is reading and Lurch approaches, noiselessly, with a tea tray, startling his mistress. “Oh!” she exclaims, “it’s you! For a moment, you gave me quite a start.”
The rest of the household accumulated slowly over the next few years: a necromantic Peter Lorre-like husband named Gomez and the baleful couple’s children, an undernourished girl with six toes on one foot and a little fat boy who foments explosives and poisons with his chemistry set, and a hag witch of a grandmother. In what may be their most celebrated appearance, the family is on the roof of their house, poised to reward a band of Christmas carolers below by tipping onto them a cauldron of what appears to be boiling oil. (Ross thought it was hot lead.)
Like the Skier cartoon, this one was not Addams’ invention. The drawing was originally conceived by cartoon editor James Geraghty and novelist Peter DeVries, then on The New Yorker staff, as a cover for the 1946 Christmas issue. Ross, when he saw it, was aghast. But Geraghty loved the idea and Addams’ execution of it—the lovingly detailed rooftop, the mansard windows, the wisp of steam emitted by the heated contents of the cauldron—and finally persuaded Ross to publish it inside the Christmas issue, dated December 21.
Christened “the Addams Family,” the ghastly ensemble became the touchstone Addams cartoon and created a pervasive image: "An Addams house, an Addams family, an Addams situation are archetypes that we see all around us," according to New York Times art critic John Russell; and Addams, Russell said, was "an American landmark, one of the few by which one and all have learned to steer."
The New Yorker’s pay scale was a multi-layered labyrinthian puzzle invented by Ross to incorporate a variety of considerations, some actual, some mystic: the size of the published cartoon (full-page cartoons were worth more), the productivity of the cartoonist, and other vagaries more peculiar to Ross’s opinion of the caliber of the cartoonist’s work than any objectively verifiable criteria. Addams was “a triple-A” in Ross’s private ranking, Davis says. Only Petty shared that ranking. But three others—Peter Arno, Hokinson, and Gluyas Williams—were “golden,” above all ranks. Double-A artists included Thurber, Whitney Darrow Jr., and George Price. In the A-rank was Sam Cobean, Rose, Otto Soglow, “and others.” In my private pantheon of New Yorker cartoonists, four stand above all the others: Arno, Hokinson, Price, and Addams. In my view, this quartet embodied New Yorker cartoon comedy: they defined, if they didn’t create, the humorous ambiance of the magazine. And none of them appeared very often anywhere else. I realize that describes Petty and Thurber, too, but—hey, opinions on such matters are usually highly personal and, as such, virtually indefensible. And that’s the case here.
Holding up for examination all sorts of morbid and vaguely sinister curiosities, Addams’ cartoons, it has been said, evince the repressed violence that lurks within normal people everywhere. Writing the Foreword to one of the thirteen collections of Addams cartoons, Addams and Evil, Wolcott Gibbs saw Addams' cartoons as "essentially a denial of all spiritual and physical evolution in the human race.” At the Saturday Review of Literature, John Mason Brown said: "His is a goblin world of bats, spiders, broomsticks, snakes, cobwebs, and bloodletting morons in which every day is Hallowe'en." Addams maintained that he arrived at his ominous ideas simply by observing people. One favorite observation point was near the William Tecumseh Sherman statue opposite the Plaza Hotel on fashionable Central Park South in New York. “After five minutes of looking at people there,” Addams said, “even my oddest drawings begin to look mild by comparison.”
But the alleged necropsical preoccupations of Addams’ cartoons abide more in the fervid imaginations of his fans than in the cartoons themselves. As cartoons, as humor, the Chas Addams cartoon is a somewhat simple and not at all spectral mechanism. Its supposed weirdness proves, under examination, not to be weird but quite conventional in dramatic terms. The comedy of the Addams Family proceeds quite logically, quite naturally—not preternaturally—from the characters. Once a vaguely sinister, morbidly preoccupied family of spooks, monsters and mad scientists has been conjured up, the rest follows as effortlessly as the eldrich night follows a gloomy dusk. If Morticia seems to be some sort of witch with death and dismemberment as amusements, it follows that if she goes next door to borrow an ingredient, the ingredient won’t be a cup of sugar. It will be, and was in Addams’ cartoon, a cup of cyanide. In short, the celebrated necromantic wit of the Addams Family cartoons surfaces whenever the family members simply act “in character.” And so if they are all at the window observing dismally windy and rainy weather, one of them, the husband in this case, is bound to say, as he does: “Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive.” And in another cartoon not involving any of the Addams menage but the witchy hag next door, the hag’s daughter would say, like any teenager under similar circumstances, “Mom, can I have the broom tonight?” Using the same unyielding logic, when Uncle Fester goes out to feed the birds, we see that they’re vultures.
A similar logic operates in most other Addams cartoons, many of which, as Davis notes, are not at all ill-omened. Here’s a shepherd surrounded by his flock as he knocks on the door of a cottage and asks the woman of the house: “Crop thy lawn, lady?” Once you have a shepherd with a flock of sheep who customarily eat grass, biting it off very close to the ground, why wouldn’t you expect the shepherd, as a purely logical matter, to take up lawn “cropping” as a way of earning a little extra cash? Much of Addams’ humor results from extending the logic of a particular situation—and extending it and extending it. And so when a man in a restaurant introduces to a friend the woman he’s dining with, saying, “Miss Osborne poses for subway posters,” it is quite logical that Miss Osborne would have a moustache and a goatee as do most faces on posters in the subway. And it is equally logical that on a street of shops all of which have signs over their entryways depicting their product—a watch at a watch repair shop, a shoe at a cobbler’s—the mortician hangs a sign in the shape of a prone body wearing a tux. And when we see a small band of Boy Scouts crossing a log bridge carrying a flag proclaiming them the Beaver Patrol, it is quite logical that they all have prominent buck teeth and that the log they’re walking on is a freshly felled tree, leaving a gnawed-on stump at the river’s edge. Logically, If one fakir on a bed of nails turns to his comrade, also prone on a bed of nails, and proposes a pillow fight, the pillows will be bristling with nails.
These cartoons all follow Groucho Marx’s prescription for professionalism as invoked by Sheed: “Groucho Marx once said that the difference between a professional comedian and an amateur was that if the script called for an old lady to crash down the hill and into a wall in her wheelchair, the professional insisted on using a real old lady. And this is what caused the sharp intake of breath with an Addams cartoon: this guy really means it, doesn’t he? He is using a real old lady. ... In a period when Disney and lesser functionaries had domesticated evil and almost rendered it cute, Addams went all the way with his ideas, crashing them into the wall and leaving them there bleeding.” That’s logic, the terrible comedic logic of the Chas Addams cartoon.
In other cartoons, Addams simply juxtaposed a conventional utterance and an unconventional setting; or vice versa, a time-honored cartoonist device. Here a landlord is showing an empty apartment to a man and woman who are obviously gangsters on the lam. The man stands at the side of the window, peering out furtively; the woman clutches a large violin case. The landlord says, as landlords do everywhere under these circumstances, “Any children?” And in the back of an opium den is the sign reading: “Occupancy by more than 31 persons is dangerous and unlawful.” And here’s a shepherd awakened by one of his sheep, which says, “Meow.”
But there is no explanation for the Skier.
Most of Addams’ humor can be analyzed with relative ease, but it was always humor of a particular, not to say peculiar, kind. He didn’t traffic in ordinary incongruities or everyday premortem comedy. His sense of humor, to which his gag writers carefully tailored their suggestions, was so distinctive that an Addams cartoon could achieve its comic effect just by being an Addams cartoon. In one such production, a man is watching television and drinking from what seems to be an ordinary soft drink bottle. His wife, who has just returned home and is standing in the doorway to the room, has asked a question to which the man replies, "I got it out of the refrigerator. Why?" The mere fact that Addams concocted this cartoon suggests that the bottle must contain something more depraved than a soft drink.
Once Addams achieved fame as a cartoonist, he sought a suitable notoriety as well, appearing at costume parties in odd robes, calling himself “a defrocked ghoul,” or pedaling a child's tricycle while smoking a cigar. On camping trips, he drove a van that he called "the Heap," the interior of which was outfitted with dignified plush furniture, a stuffed partridge and a stuffed grackle. It is somehow fitting that he collected medieval arms and armor, which he displayed in his home. He also had a coffee table made from an embalming table, and stuffed bats and skulls and an antique headsman’s axe were displayed in his abode. As Sheed observed: “In other words, Charles Addams was a consummate craftsman, or magician, who understood that it’s not a bad idea to keep the illusion going between tricks if it helps the tricks to work better.” More conventionally, he also enjoyed owning and driving vintage automobiles and sports cars—Astin Martins, Bugattis, Alfa Romeros, Bentleys.
During World War II, Addams served from 1943 to 1946 in the Army Signal Corps, illustrating manuals and making animated training films warning against syphilis (his only “job” other than the one he held at Macfadden). The Signal Corps Photographic Center to which Addams was assigned was in Astoria, Queens, so he was never far from the city, and he continued submitting cartoons to The New Yorker throughout the war. “For Addams,” Davis writes, “the Signal Corps was cartoonist Sam Cobean,” whom Addams met in the Astoria shop and called “one of the great comic artists of all time”—a dark, strikingly handsome man who, Davis tells us, looked like Tyrone Power. Addams and Cobean bonded, and Addams introduced Cobean to The New Yorker. Ross bought the first cartoons Cobean submitted. After the war, the two shared an office at The New Yorker, and when Cobean died in 1951 at the tragically early age of 38, swerving his car to avoid another and running into a tree, Addams couldn’t believe it. “Sam killed,” he wrote in his notebook, using a pencil, Davis says, “as if the entry might be a mistake he would later erase.”
Addams was married three times and divorced twice. He married Barbara Day, a former model, May 29, 1943, having obtained a few days’ leave from the Signal Corps over the Memorial Day weekend. But Barbara wanted a child, and when Addams reneged on adopting one in 1951, she left him, with another man, a neighbor, in June 1951, just three weeks before Cobean was killed. Addams’ opinion of children might be derived from their numerous deranged appearances in his cartoons, but Addams liked children as long as they weren’t his own. His divorce from Barbara Day was finally achieved in October 1951, and Addams began playing the field with such enthusiastic abandon as to earn a reputation as one of New York’s “most sought-after men.”
Then in the spring of 1953, Addams joined some friends at a bar and met another Barbara, with the unlikely Hollywoodian sur-name Barb, who was apparently so smitten by the cartoonist that she showed up, uninvited, at his apartment, naked under a mink coat. She, like the first Barbara, was a slender brunette who reminded witnesses of Morticia, and Barbara, like Morticia, was somewhat fictional not to say fraudulent. She’d invented a personal history that seemed to her more glamorous than her actual biography, which was a pretty impressive success story. Despite a humble origin, she was a high-powered attorney, specializing in international law. By September 1953, she was Addams’ almost constant companion; they married in December 1954, and trouble began almost immediately. She ferociously provoked fights with her husband, usually destroying property as she raged. Sometimes, she attacked Addams—once with a stiletto heel applied to his head so severely that he went to the hospital, once by pressing lighted cigarettes into his arm. Davis, who looks a little like Dorothy McGuire in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” calls her “Bad Barbara,” continuing: “Her role in Addams’ life was that of the bad fairy at the christening.” Bad Barbara maintained throughout their marriage a “loving correspondence” with a titled British M.P., Lord Colyton, who she visited frequently and married right after Addams divorced her in October 1956.
Addams had known of her infidelity with the Englishman since the summer of 1955, but—as strange as his sense of humor—in order to get the divorce, he had signed away to her the rights to many of his cartoons and even, although apparently unwittingly, to the Addams Family, an arrangement that later plagued prospects for developing the characters in other media. Addams, almost right away, in December, met the woman who would be his third wife, Marilyn Matthews Miller, called Tee, another brunette and former Powers model who was, at that time, married to a friend, Bedford Davie, and lived with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. She married Addams 24 years later after she had gone through another husband or so and Addams had dallied with every lusting female in New York (which included, as we’ll see anon, some surprising playmates). Their wedding on May 31, 1980 was held at Tee’s country place in her cemetery for pets; the bride wore a black dress and carried a black feather fan, saying that the groom "likes black and thought it would be nice and cheerful."
In 1963, Addams was approached by David Levy, an independent television producer, who wanted to bring the Addams Family to the small screen. By September, they’d worked out the details. Then Bad Barbara found out and sprung her surprise, revealing her ownership of the characters. In letter after letter from England, tantrum after tantrum, she demanded more and more. The prospect of the tv series was very nearly scuttled by her machinations, but at the last minute, Addams’ lawyers maneuvered a rescue, and “The Addams Family” debuted on ABC on September 18, 1964, a Friday, with Carolyn Jones playing Morticia; John Astin, her husband; and Ted Cassidy, Lurch. A week later, September 24, a Thursday, “The Munsters,” an obvious clone, started on CBS, with Yvonne DeCarlo paying the mistress of the manse, Lily Munster, and Fred Gwynne playing her husband, Herman, the Lurch counterpart in the series. Both shows lasted only two years, their final telecasts as nearly simultaneous as their debuts had been: “The Addams Family” on September 2, 1966; “The Munsters,” September 1.
The Addams Family members had acquired their names before the tv series began: a set of cloth dolls in production in the spring of 1963 needed names. Addams named them all except the gaunt six-toed daughter, who was christened Wednesday (for the child of woe) by the doll manufacturer. Consulting the phone book under “morticians,” Addams named his heroine. He offered two names for her spouse, Repelli or Gomez (an old family friend), and let actor Astin make the final choice. Gomez. Lurch was suggested by the Frankenstein monster’s halting gait; Uncle Fester—“I just thought that up as befitting a rotten guy.” The homicidal son, Pugsley would have been called Pubert if Addams had achieved his wish; but the doll people thought it sounded dirty.
At The New Yorker, William Shawn refused to publish any more Addams Family cartoons once the tv series was launched—as if the Hollywood treatment had somehow “compromised Addams’ evils,” as Davis puts it. And Addams was bitter about it even though he wasn’t producing as many Addams Family cartoons as he had been. The show went into syndication and ran in various countries for the next twenty years, but Addams saw little income from the series. His last check came in 1974; it was for $179. Bad Barbara, on the other hand, kept going to the bank. Her greed, however, sabotaged a number of other potentially remunerative deals, and her tactics—tears, flattery, tantrums, harassment by phone—were legendary in the entertainment industry. In 1991, three years after Addams’ death, “The Addams Family” motion picture arrived, starring Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia. “During the making of the movie,” Davis reports, “Paramount reportedly hired a woman whose sole responsibility was to take calls from Lady Colyton.” Tee, as Addams’ widow, shared in the earnings of the movie and its sequel, splitting $6 million with Bad Barbara.
Addams died of a heart attack suffered just as he parked his Audi in front of his Manhattan apartment on the morning of September 29, 1988. He was returning alone from a trip he’d made to Connecticut with cartoonist Frank Modell to see a house Modell was thinking of buying; the two had stopped overnight to visit another New Yorker cartoonist, James Stevenson. Each of chapters 23 through 25 of her 26-chapter book, Davis begins with portions of a prolonged narrative describing the trip, the detours Addams always took on such expeditions (“to find ‘historical sites and architectural landmarks,’ a typical Addams drive in which getting there was the real fun”), and the pleasant time the three cartoonists had shared, watching the Mets play the Phillies on tv, laughing and telling stories about people and cars—“they never, ever talked about cartoons”—and “pissing off the porch.” Interspersed in the narrative are flashbacks to other Addams adventures and events in his life, a kind of scrapbook of miscellany that could have been fitted in elsewhere but isn’t. We know something is coming, though: Addams was “unusually talkative,” laughing “openly” (which he didn’t normally do). This elongated and episodic maneuver serves as a desultory and affectionate farewell to a person who Davis, as biographer, has come to know and love, perhaps even admire, and Addams’ death slips almost unobtrusively into the narrative at the end, with the dying part merely alluded to. “His was an easy death,” Davis says; “he was found slumped behind the wheel ... he had had a heart attack.”
The book is well but not amply illustrated with Addams’ cartoons. Most of them, despite Davis’ acknowledging that not all of his work was macabre, are of that sort. A modest array of sketches, mostly by Sam Cobean, and several photographs completes the illustrative content. Quite adequate.
Davis’ book is a very good book because she is a very good writer and a meticulous researcher and apparently a persistent interviewer. But her understanding of cartooning is fairly elementary. In a book about a less quirky personality than Addams, this shortcoming would be conspicuous and therefore disastrous. Fortunately, Davis can dwell on Addams’ personal history, which so fills the book’s pages that we scarcely notice that she says very little about the cartoonist’s life as a cartoonist.
I confess that my reservations about Davis’ ability to discuss cartooning began almost at once. On page 4, she describes Addams’ distinctive signature, his name “abbreviated in thick black ink.” I stopped at “thick.” It wasn’t the word I would have used. “Bold” maybe. And it wasn’t the ink that was bold, or thick, it was the line that made the letters of Chas Addams. About the thickness of the ink in Addams’ ink bottle we can only speculate. I would have said that Addams inked his signature with bold, black cursive script. Admittedly, word choices are not scientifically arrived at; these are stylistic matters, and Davis’ manner of describing Addams’ signature is probably perfectly understandable to the normal reader who is doubtless not obsessed by cartooning. But her word choices here put my teeth on edge a bit. You might say that I proceeded thereafter with a bias waiting to pounce.
And it didn’t take long. On page 43, describing Addams’ first macabre cartoon in the March 23, 1935 issue of The New Yorker, Davis reveals that her grasp of what makes a cartoon funny is either somewhat tenuous or her ability to isolate the key comedic element flawed: “Addams submitted a sketch of newspapers rolling off a printing press. In the midst of a line of Herald Tribunes a tabloid appears with the headline ‘Sex Fiend Slays Tot.’ The editors approved the idea but asked Addams to change the Tribune to The New York Times.” The inexplicable here, the hideous hilarity, arises from the sudden incongruous appearance of a sensation-mongering tabloid coming off the same printing press as a cascade of dignified newspapers. How the tabloid achieved this impossibility is part of the comedy; the other part, however, requires that we understand that tabloids in 1935 were sensational rags compared to such dignified dailies as The New York Times. Davis realizes this because she mentions the change from the Herald Tribune (which, then and for decades thereafter, was highly regarded for the literate nature of its news stories but not necessarily any inherent dignity) to the Times, which The New Yorker editors realized was a more recognizable bastion of respectability for contrast with the tabloid and its sensational headline. Although the joke here is implicit in the aggregate of what Davis writes, she could have made it clearer: “In the midst of a line of dignified and respectable Herald Tribunes a sensation-mongering tabloid appears with the headline ‘Sex Fiend ...’.” A trifling matter, surely, but Davis displays a similar laxity again within a few pages.
On page 46, she refers to the famous early George Price cartoon series “of a levitating man [that] ended with a gunshot. ‘He never knew what hit him,’ the man’s wife tells the cops, with the smoking rifle still in her hand.” That’s all Davis says. How can we tell, from this cryptic notation, that the “levitating man” appeared in a series of cartoons that began August 13, 1932, just two months after Price’s debut in the magazine, in which the cartoonist depicted a man reclining in space, hovering about three feet over his bed, being observed by his wife, who says to a visitor at her elbow in the doorway, “He’s been up there a week.” The same drawing is repeated several times over the ensuing months, and at every appearance, his wife comments differently on this weird circumstance to a visitor.
Davis isn’t writing a book about Price, so she probably didn’t feel the need to go into as much detail as I’ve mustered here. But why, then, refer to a cartoon in terms so cryptic that the joke isn’t apparent? She does it again twenty pages later, referring to an Addams Family cartoon “involving a squeaky trapdoor” which she apparently expects us to know all about even though the cartoon appears nowhere in the vicinity. And she misses the black humor in the cartoon showing a “wretched girl skipping rope on a dark sidewalk [chanting], ‘Twenty-three thousand and one, twenty-three thousand and two, twenty-three thousand and three ....’” The little girl isn’t simply “wretched”; she’s gaunt, emaciated, starving slowly to death as she skips rope on and on without ceasing. It’s her imminent death by starvation that makes the cartoon funny in that convoluted way an Addams cartoon ridicules conventional proprieties by subverting them. But Davis misses it—either because she doesn’t see it or because she can’t articulate her understanding of it.
She doesn’t analyze Addams’ humor much at all, and you’d think she would. Addams didn’t and disliked the idea of doing it; so maybe she’s following his lead. Or maybe she doesn’t actually see the humor.
She also gets some crucial dates wrong. Addams first New Yorker cartoon, the skateless hockey player, appeared in the issue for February 4, not January 4. The celebrated skier cartoon was published in the issue for January 13, not January 12. These are trifling matters in the grand scheme of things, but they loom somewhat larger in a volume purporting to record historic moments in a cartoonist’s career. Davis’ recitation of Addams schooling seems confused about dates until I decided, without her telling me, that Addams had probably graduated from high school at age 17, not 18, the usual age these days.
More seriously, Davis seems baffled by Addams’ writing one of The New Yorker editors in the summer of 1935 to tell him that he was going out of town for a couple weeks and wouldn’t be submitting any cartoons for that period. “Why, as a freelancer,” Davis writes, “he felt the need to cover for a lack of submissions is uncertain.” But that’s exactly why—because he was a freelancer. To anyone who freelances, Addams’ conduct is perfectly understandable: he had just begun to sell regularly to the magazine and, feeling a growing sense of engagement, wanted to foster and sustain that sense of mutual commitment by staying in touch with the editors even when not submitting cartoons. But Davis doesn’t see that, revealing that her grasp of a freelance cartoonist’s lifestyle is nearly non-existent.
That makes her achievement in this book all the more remarkable.
The book, as I reflect on it, seems mostly about Addams’ social life—his affairs, his women, his trips with them to antique shops in Pennsylvania and favorite cemeteries en route, his marriages—and not much about his work life. With Addams, who apparently had a very energetic sex life and a bizarre sense of humor that Davis frequently refers to, this void is not so noticeable. It is probably impossible to trace the evolution of every cartoon idea in the detail she devotes to the “Sex Fiend” cartoon or the “Boiling Oil” cartoon, but she might have found a way to get us more deeply into Addams’ work methods or his life in The New Yorker offices or his relationship to Ross or other magazine staffers. Davis touches on these matters—a paragraph or two about Addams’ drawing tools and methods, a couple dozen nicely achieved passages scattered through the book about his daily routines—but not much of this has the inky-fingered feel of actual labor at the drawing board.
In contrast, her recitation of Addams’ adventures with the opposing sex seems as exhaustive in its catalogue of conquests as it must have been exhausting for Addams to live through. Addams dated a lot of women and had sexual relations with many even during his marriages. And in the twenty-four years between Barbara Barb and Tee Davie, he logged time with such notable actresses as Greta Garbo, who once traveled with him on a holiday in Barbados, and Jane Fontaine, who, it was widely rumored for a time, the cartoonist was destined to marry. He didn’t.
Addams’ datebook shows that he was squiring Jackie Kennedy around town three months after JFK’s assassination. He, however, was not rich enough to sustain that relationship. And she, it seems, was something of an insensitive snob. She never regarded him as husband material, Davis says. “Well, I couldn’t get married to you,” she exclaimed one time; “what would we talk about at the end of the day—cartoons?” It was a put-down that “crushed” Addams, Davis says.
Their relationship was probably not sexual, Davis thinks. But most of his women friends were in bed with him at one time or another. Astonishingly, they all knew of each other’s peccadillos with Addams and remained friends with him, and with each other. One exception involved a young woman named Megan Marshack, who lived in the same building as Addams. He’d noticed her but had done nothing until Nelson Rockefeller died. Scandalously, Rockefeller, it was slowly revealed, died of a heart attack while “visiting” Marshack, who was his assistant on various book projects. Addams was soon boasting to friends that he “was in the sack with Megan the day after Rockefeller died.” This relationship between the 67-year-old Addams and the 26-year-old Marshack continued for about a year until Tee Davie, who was becoming more and more indispensable to Addams’ happiness even though she traveled abroad a great deal, told him to cut it out. Within months, Marshack disappears from Addams’ life, and he and Tee were married.
Addams emerges in Davis’ narrative as a man who loves women in a companionable as well as sexual way. With Addams and women, it wasn’t just sex, according to Tee. “Charlie had a true interest in women as friends,” she said. “Where another man would be wondering, ‘Can I get her into bed?’ Charlie would be thinking, ‘Now here’s an attractive person. I wonder what her story is.’”
Davis returns often to Barbara Barb, the femme fatale and pervasive villain in the book, because the woman haunted Addams after their marriage. When, on business, she came to this country from England, she often stayed with Addams. Or he with her in her hotel. All of this extra-conjugality took place despite her plundering of his life and fortune. Addams’ lawyers constantly warned him about documents that Barb presented for his signature, but he always signed them—even though he knew he was giving her things he shouldn’t. He seems a genuine patsy. Or, as I say, a man who loves women—in the case of Barbara Barb, too well.
Hampered by an inability to understand or to articulate an understanding about cartooning, Davis nonetheless has produced a highly readable and entertaining biography of one of the medium’s legendary practitioners. She quotes from Addams, his record books, and his friends’ recollections about his antics, and then—cherry-picking just the right bon mots to drop into her narrative at just the right moments to enhance its flavor, like nutmeg on high octane eggnog—she meticulously integrates all the fragments into a lively and cohesive story, as brilliantly illuminated by, as it revealing of, the personality of her subject. The narrative is so enlivened by quotations that it becomes a long conversation with Addams and his friends, a triumph at revelation. We get to know Addams pretty well, and we can’t ask much more of a biography (even though it would have been wonderful to know more about how Addams wielded a brush or interacted with other New Yorker regulars).
Davis reminds us more than once that Addams looked a lot like Walter Matthau, and by mid-way in the book, Addams was always Matthau in my mind’s eye, the Matthau in the movie “Hopscotch”—an easy smile, warm, supremely competent and self-assured, humorous and not macabre. I see him that way when reading Roger Angell’s farewell to Addams in The New Yorker:
“Charles Addams was a tall, quiet, silver-haired man with a commanding nose and a courtly manner. He was grave and gentle by habit, but when he laughed, his face caved in around a chasmed, V-shaped grin, and he shook [silently] with pleasure. He was not introspective about his cartoons, and he turned away from questions about his art—where it came from, how he did it, what it meant. He did his work with serene authority; there was no thrashing about artistically. He seemed shy, but he loved company and had a great many friends; men and women were drawn to him. ... He was elegant and uncontrived.”
Said Sheed, who knew Addams well: “If you had only the drawings to go on, you couldn’t imagine calling him Charlie; but if you ever met him, you couldn’t imagine calling him anything else. And if I had all day, I couldn’t describe him better than that.”
Addams was also, incontestably, the cartoonist who invented the Addams Family. Awful things were reportedly hilarious to him, and he tended to giggle at funeral orations. But he was mildly annoyed, Davis tells us, by people focusing, as Davis must, on the dark side of his humor. “I’m sick of people calling it macabre,” he said. “It’s just funny, that’s all.”
Okay: funny, that’s all.
Bibliography. Before Davis’ book, most Addams’ life is merely hinted at in the obituary in The New York Times for 30 September 1988 and in Current Biography 1954, in The New York Star Magazine (19 September 1948), in The Saturday Review of Literature (11 November 1950), and in Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker (1975). His famous family of lovable monsters was turned into a television series, "The Addams Family," 1966-1968, and a movie, “The Addams Family” (1991) and its sequel, “Addams Family Values” (1993). Addams' cartoons are reprinted in The New Yorker anthologies of drawings and in collections: Drawn and Quartered (1942), Addams and Evil (1947), Monster Rally (1950), Home Bodies (1954), Nightcrawlers (1957), Dear Dead Days (1959), Black Maria (1960), The Groaning Board (1964), The Charles Addams Mother Goose (1967), My Crowd (1970), Favorite Haunts (1976), Creature Comforts (1982), and a posthumous compilation, The World of Charles Addams (1991), in which reproduction is terrible.
NOUS R US
All the news that gives us fits.
Robert Downey, Jr. has been tapped to play the part of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in the Paramount movie based on the character. Marvel president Kevin Feige told Hollywood Reporter that filmmakers look for the actor who best embodies the character. “The Marvel characters,” he explained, “are not just about how high they jump or how fast they fly; they’re about their character flaws. They’re about their inner demons. They’re about the struggles that they go through between being a human and being a hero.” One of Stark’s struggles involves his drinking problem.
Creation of the Joker Again. The other comics show at the Jewish Museum in New York—the one in addition to the “Masters of American Comics”—is called “Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics,” a more focused vision, Jerry Robinson says, of a show he did last year for the Breman Jewish Center in Atlanta, “The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950,” now on tour. For the New York encore, the show has “an accent on the Jewish artists of the New York area, although it’s not exclusively that,” Robinson told Daniel Robert Epstein of Newsrama. Robinson has been researching the prominence of Jewish artists, writers, editors and publishers in the comic book industry and is assembling a book on the subject. For the show, he selected fifteen artists and writers who he thinks made “the greatest impact on the fledgling comics industry.” One of the pieces on display is “the concept sketch” for the Joker, the Batman villain that Robinson created with Bill Finger, the writer who co-created Batman with Bob Kane. Asked if the Joker was based on Conrad Veidt in the film “The Man Who Laughs,” Robinson said: “No, it was not. That’s been written about, but that’s not exactly correct. What happened was Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt was a great star of European films, and in the film, Veidt had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of the Joker [the “concept sketch” Robinson had done], he said, ‘That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in ‘The Man Who Laughs.’ He said he would bring in some shots of that movie to show me. That’s how that came about. I think in Bill’s mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character.” This version of the oft-disputed creation of the Joker is almost exactly the one I conjured up to reconcile the Kane version and the Robinson version; see “How Much Did Batman Knock-off Dick Tracy?” in Hindsight by clicking here. I’ve always thought Kane took more credit for the creation of the Joker than was accurate—just as he did for Batman, Robin, and the whole enchilada.
Scott Adams Speaks—Miraculously. The diabolical disease seems devised expressly for the creator of the sardonically farcical satire Dilbert. It sounds like something Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams would fiendishly concoct and inflict on one of his more arrogant and insensitive cubical occupants. There’s no known cure for spasmodic dysphonia, which afflicts about 30,000 Americans, usually in their 40s and 50s, causing loss of speech. Sort of. People with SD typically can’t talk in their normal voices: they gasp and stammer as spasms wrack their vocal chords. But if they distort their voices, talking in a falsetto or baritone, or if they recite poetry or speak in rhyme, they can talk a little. Adams talked by speaking in rhyme or by pinching his nose, according to the Associated Press. “Nearly three years ago, he developed a tremor in his right pinky whenever he tried to put pen to paper. He turned to a digital drawing tablet and stylus, and the spasms disappeared. Dilbert has been computer-generated ever since. Then Adams lost his voice in early 2005 after a bout of bronchitis and laryngitis.” A specialist diagnosed SD and began treatments with the tissue-paralyzing drug botulinum toxin, “botox.” Injections work for only about three months, and Adams hated it. Every night, he recited nursery rhymes in the hope of “re-mapping” his brain. Then a couple weeks ago while chanting “Jack Be Nimble,” he realized he wasn’t experiencing the usual symptoms: “he wasn’t having a stitch of difficulty. He’s been talking ever since, albeit with a raspy, tinny voice.”
Roy Crane had a crushingly embarrassing time ending World War II. Since 1943 when he launched Buz Sawyer, his comic strip about a Navy pilot, he had earned a reputation for authenticity that rivaled Milton Caniff’s in Terry and the Pirates. But now, in August 1945, the War in the comic strip was still going on almost two weeks after real life Japan had surrendered. Thinking that the invasion of the Japanese homeland was imminent that summer, Crane had started a continuity that had Buz about to make bombing runs over Tokyo on August 16, the day after Japan formally surrendered. Because daily strips are prepared to be pumped into the distribution pipeline four weeks in advance of publication date, Buz Sawyer could have been fighting a now-nonexistent war well into September, but Crane scrambled frantically and was able to abort his bomb raid continuity and get into another storyline within two weeks. In the strip for Tuesday, August 28, the news comes over the ship’s PA system: “Japan Has Surrendered! The War Is Over!”
Crane’s ending of World War II is embraced by the just released second volume of Manuscript Press’s reprinting of the strip, Buz Sawyer: Sultry’s Tiger (210 8x10-inch pages in black-and-white paperback, bound on the short side, $25; P.O. 336, Mountain Home, TN 37684), which takes the continuity from January 1945 through mid-April 1946. Crane not only tore up his bomb run episode and concocted some transitional continuity, he asked his syndicate to short-circuit as much as it could the dispensing of the embarrassing storyline and he produced a single installment of the strip for emergency distribution to be printed “both on and off the comics page” of client newspapers on August 16. In this rare item, which Bill Blackbeard has provided for this book, Roscoe Sweeney, Buz’s crew member, runs out to tell Buz the news: “The war’s over,” he yells, “—the Japs have quit!” Bus is, naturally, delighted, but then, in the strip’s third and last panel, thinking of the bomb run story unfolding elsewhere in the newspaper’s comics section, he breaks the fourth wall: “Hmmm—makes us look sort of silly, doesn’t it?” Crane supplies a caption, attempting to explain the incongruity while also preserving the illusion of real life he’d worked so hard to establish in the strip: “The current story sequence began before the Jap surrender. In reality, the action takes but a few hours. Its presentation in a strip, tho’, requires several days. Can you bear with us while the episode runs its course?” In other words, he seems to be saying, the action you’re witnessing in the strip actually took place before the Japanese surrendered, but the action being depicted, while taking only a few hours in reality—and now completed—takes longer to present in this narrative form. He could have explained that the strips published in the paper that week and the next were prepared weeks in advance and there wasn’t time to immediately correct their course; but instead he tried to preserve the illusion that the strip was recording actual events in the Pacific war. A formidable task, but achieved—albeit awkwardly, requiring readers to “know” while “not knowing.”
The remainder of this volume covers Buz’s discharge and return to civilian life. En route, he runs into the Cobra, the female guerilla leader who is Crane’s version of Caniff’s Dragon Lady. When not a freedom fighter for her people, she’s the Maharani of Batu, her name is Sultry, and she wants Buz for herself. She is poised on the edge of insane jealousy, and when Buz declines her offer of a job on her island, she assumes he’s in love with someone else and flies into a rage. Buz gets his discharge and goes back to the states, where he is reunited with his fiancé, Tot Winter. Soon Sultry shows up with her pet tiger, and on a particular starry night, the tiger attacks Tot—with tragic results. But you’ll have to go there to know what they are.
The strips here are probably reprinted from newspaper clippings, and Crane’s celebrated Craftint duotone shading turns a little muddy with reproduction from such flawed originals. Hoping to offset this effect, editor Rick Norwood and publisher Jeffrey Lindenblatt run the strips just two to a page, so they appear at a giant 2 7/8 x 8 ½ inch dimension, large enough to prevent the mud from clotting completely. This is as good a reproduction as we’re ever likely to get: Crane’s spectacularly photographic seascapes and battle scenes are stunning, and this book gives them to us in at least as good a condition as the newspapers in which they initially appeared.
More Reviews. This department, Book Marquee, was intended, when I first thunk it up, to include short reviews and notices of forthcoming tomes. I wanted a niche that I could fill with short, quickly written articles about books that come sweeping in here by the carload lot, too rapidly for me to read thoroughly and then comment intelligibly on. Quick and fast, that was going to be my motto. I’ve rather regularly violated that principle, at least as I envisioned it, by including longish reviews like the one we’ve just concluded. For the next couple books, I’m trying to get back to the original conception of this department. But now, another distinction. A “review” in my lexicon is what happens when I describe a book I have in hand—how big is it, what’s in it. For the reader of a review, the review serves as a substitute for actually seeing and holding the object, but a review doesn’t examine the merit of the object—its accuracy if history, its logical soundness if an argument. An article that performs the latter function is a critique, not a review. A critique is also a review, but it’s more than a review: a critique includes opinion as well as description. Elsewhere in this week’s opus, I’m critiquing the biography of Chas Addams. My reviews invariably veer off in the direction of critiques: in the Buz Sawyer review above, I’m getting into a critique mode when I start talking about the quality of reproduction. But I started out just to review the book, not to critique it. Ditto what follows.
Ode to Kirihito measures 6x9x3 inches. It’s a brick of a book, 3 inches thick. It’s somewhat over 800 black-and-white pages long and is said to be the favorite creation of manga godfather, Osamu Tezuka, who, with this work, entered for the first time the world of gekiga, a term invented by another Japanese artist, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, to distinguish his gritty adult-oriented genre from manga, traditionally aimed at younger readers. The title role in Kirihito, drawn in a more realistic manner than Tezuka’s pace-setting classic, Astro Boy, goes to a young doctor who sets out to solve a medical mystery, which has been manifest in the form of a man/beast. The jacket fly leaf proclaims that this work “demolishes naive notions about human nature and health and likely preconceptions about the comics master himself”; $24.95 from Vertical at www.vertical-inc.com
And here’s The Rejection Collection (272 8x10-inch pages in black-and-white; hardcover, $22.95 from Simon Spotlight, an imprint of Simon & Schuster), a handsome compilation of cartoons rejected by The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, who produces an amusing Foreword for this book, and various other of the magazine’s editors, enough of them that Mankoff can say, with a straight face, that “if it were really up to just me, some of these cartoons would probably have made it into The New Yorker.” He continues: “Many of the offensive, obscene, disgusting cartoons here will actually make you laugh out loud—and, in some cases, cause incontinence, nausea, and fainting. So before looking at these cartoons, ask your doctor if incontinence, nausea, and fainting are right for you.” Edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee, the book offers a prize collection of rejected cartoons by thirty well-known New Yorker cartoonists, beginning with Pat Byrnes and Leo Cullum and going all the way through the cartoonist alphabet to Gahan Wilson and Jack Ziegler. That’s funny enough in itself, I suppose, but Diffee has improved upon the usual rejected or censored cartoon collection by including photographs of each of the rejected ’tooners and their responses to a two-page questionnaire that begins: How did you learn to draw that way? To which Sam Gross responds: What way? There’s more of the same, some of it actually revealing. Diffee’s object in ginning up the questionnaire, he explains, is to try to re-create on paper something of the shop talk atmosphere that permeates the table-talk among the cartoonists when they all meet for lunch on Tuesdays after having submitted the week’s cartoons to Mankoff. The conversation is unique, Diffee says, consisting of heated arguments over which is the funnier, “Scranton” or “Cleveland.” As words, mind you, not as actual cities. Myself, I’d opt for Schenectady but that’s because I get all my ideas from there, and I’ve never had the dubious benefit of attending one of those Tuesday luncheons. Each cartoonist is represented by five of his best rejects, and Mankoff is right: they’ll make you laugh. “Funny,” Mankoff warns us, “isn’t about beauty: it’s about freedom.” And these cartoons are the kind that cartoonists produce when they are free from all editorial restraint (when they are in an unpublished state, in other words) to do whatever tickles their risibles. Unhappily, the good taste of New Yorker editors seems devoted to preserving civilization rather than permitting the untrammeled exercise of cartoonist freedom. These are funny. Untrammeled.
See what I mean? That review turned into a critique.
CIVILIZATION’S LAST OUTPOST
One of a kind beats everything. —Dennis Miller adv.
This one has been floating around the electronic ether: A college class was told they had to write a short story in as few words as possible. The instructions were that the short story had to contain the following three things: religion, sexuality, mystery. Here’s the offering that earned an A-plus: “Good God, I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it?”
More World History in the Middle East. I was puzzled, an opus or so ago, when I reviewed the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians—or Jews and Arabs, as it happens—and learned that the British, who controlled that part of the world for some time during the “Mandate” after World War I, favored the Arabs over the Jews, almost to the point that we would be justified in suspecting the English of anti-Semiticism. Why, I wondered, would the British favor the Arabs? Then I ran across a fascinating book, A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin. The explanation of the British bias is quite simple and has nothing to do with anti-Semiticism and everything to do with Empire. By 1900, remember, the British had a globe-girdling Empire from India to Canada and back again, and after Word War I, the Empire included, by reason of the Mandate (which gave Britain administrative responsibility for various “immature” countries), the Arab countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, an Empire that, because it sided with the Germans during the war, was split up and portioned out among the victors after the War. Many, if not most, of the Arab citizenry over which the British now held sway were Muslims. The British, like many well-intentioned but ill-informed conquerors, believed that Islam was a single entity, a centralized, authoritarian structure like Roman Catholicism with the Caliph presiding like the Pope. And so the British believed that they could control the Muslim populations of the countries over which they reigned by controlling the religious leadership, namely, the Caliph, who in the wake of WWI, was, for Sunni Muslims anyhow, the Turkish sultan. This was a serious consideration: in Britain’s India alone the Muslims numbered 70 million; altogether, the British Empire included over half the world’s Muslims, and they constituted a majority of the population in Egypt, another country in the Empire, which controlled access to the Suez Canal, the vital sea link to India. And in the post-war politics of the region, it looked as if the Turkish sultan was likely to become a tool of the Russians, so the British set out to preclude the effectiveness of any such capitulation by maintaining that since Muhammad started in Arabia (today’s Saudi Arabia), his successors, the modern-day caliphs, should be Arabian, too, and the British began encouraging this view. And so it was in the interest of advancing this scheme that the British tended to favor Arabs, or Palestinians, in the roiling unrest in Palestine during the Mandate years and up to the time the British gave up the Mandate and departed the country in 1948.
Having chanced upon this morsel in this book, I thumbed further in it, looking for references to T.E. Lawrence, famed as “Lawrence of Arabia,” who had welded tribes of Arabs together long enough to lead them in overthrowing their Ottoman overlords during World War I. In my quest, I ran across a reference to an information sheet published by Britain’s Arab Bureau in Cairo, the Arab Bulletin, which Lawrence, for a time, edited. The first issue, which he edited, appeared in June 1916, just as a revolution against the Ottoman Empire was getting underway. “Lawrence,” writes Fromkin, “indicated that there were problems in holding Arabs together even for the purposes of revolt. He wrote that whenever there were large tribal gatherings, dissension soon arose; and, knowing this, the Turks [who were running the Ottoman Empire] held back and did nothing. They delayed ‘in the sure expectation that tribal dissension would soon dismember their opponents.’” Sound familiar? Does to me. The book, by the way, is an old book, copyrighted 1989; so all of us have had plenty of time to read it. And I wouldn’t be surprised that some in the State Department had read it and recalled it when trying to plan for a post-invasion operation in Iraq, an operation Rumsfeld didn’t want any planning for because, it is alleged, if the American public heard about such plans, they would quickly come to believe that the Invasion of Iraq might last longer than the few months all the Pentagoners were steadfast in predicting those days. We’ve never understood tribal societies. That way of thinking is foreign to us, and in our arrogance, we don’t think we need to know about foreigners.
One of the nation’s most influential literary endeavors passed its one hundredth anniversary last February without much fanfare or folderol. Early in 1905, a 27-year-old hack writer named Upton Sinclair, who had earned his way through the City College of New York by writing dime novels, spent seven weeks living with stockyard workers in Chicago to observe the meat packing business, his expenses paid by the socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, which subsequently published in serial installments Sinclair’s novel about the grinding misfortunes of an immigrant stockyard worker. Sinclair then tried to get The Jungle published as a book, but after being turned down by five publishers, he finally published the novel himself. Its publication caused enough ruckus to attract the attention of Doubleday, Page and Company, which quickly published the next edition of the book in February 1906.
For the next year, The Jungle was the best-selling book in the U.S. and was translated into seventeen languages. Its portrait of the unsanitary conditions in meat packing houses so disgusted and alarmed Americans that Congress enacted the Pure Food and Meat Inspection legislation in less than four months, a spectacular enough achievement on its face, considering the dilatory pace of congressional actions these days, but even more startling when we realize that the law momentarily interfered with the profit-making endeavors of a major American industry. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the only other work of American fiction with similar social impact, had taken years to effect the changes it advocated. Agitation for government standards to improve the conditions of large-scale food processing had been building for years before Sinclair’s novel burst upon the scene; The Jungle was scarcely the sole cause of reform, but it focused public attention on the issue, becoming the catalyst for legislation.
Sinclair, whose previous five novels had produced almost no income, was overnight a wealthy man and a celebrity, but he regarded The Jungle as something of a failure. A passionate Socialist, he had written the book to inspire a wholesale social revolution not the reformation of the food processing industry. The protagonist of his novel, a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis, comes to this country with dreams of a better life, but when he takes the only job he can find for an unskilled laborer in “Packingtown,” he is thoroughly, mercilessly, exploited by a concatenation of capitalistic chicanery and political corruption: every American institution he encounters cheats him and brutalizes him. Another Socialist author, Jack London, at the time on the crest of his fame, wrote of the novel: “It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts. ... What Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the black slaves, The Jungle has a large chance to do for the white [wage] slaves of today.” Alas, as Sinclair came suddenly and bitterly to realize, his reading public was more moved by the menace of “tubercular beef” than by the dehumanization of the working man and the destruction of the human spirit.
Sinclair would be gratified at Peter Kuper’s graphic novel adaption of The Jungle (48 9x12-inch pages in paperback; full color, $10.95), a 1991 First Publishing edition just re-issued by NBM, a little late for the centennial celebration, but better late than never. While Kuper’s treatment includes mention in narrative captions of some of the more sensational of the novel’s allegations—rats ground up in the meat, workers falling into processing vats and being boiled to death and, later, incorporated into “a fancy grade of lard” or tinned meat—his pictures focus our attention on the unfortunate Jurgis, fated to endure a catalogue of disasters before finally finding happiness as a Socialist. Reporting the manufacture of potted ham from dead vermin and other of the novel’s unsavory insights took only a dozen or so of the original book’s 300-plus pages: Kuper restores Sinclair’s emphasis on the evils of capitalism.
Newly married, Jurgis is cheated by a real estate broker who sells him a sub-standard house, saddling him with mortgage payments he can barely make, a hardship compounded when Jurgis is injured on the job and must spend weeks recuperating. When he returns to go to work, he finds his job has been given to someone else. “They had worn him out; and now they had thrown him away.” He finds another job in a fertilizer plant, the odors of which soak into his clothing and skin, making him smell so bad that his whole family is ill in his presence. Then he takes solace in drink, and his young wife turns to prostitution to help meet expenses. Jurgis assaults the man who corrupted his wife and spends weeks in prison; when he is released and returns home, he discovers that the house has been repossessed and his family has moved to a lodging house, where he finds his wife dying in childbirth.
Jurgis’ misfortunes continue in a steady, relentlessly downward spiral. He becomes a tramp, a mugger, then a scab during a strike. He meets his wife’s cousin, who has become a prostitute because of her drug addiction. Downcast, miserable, Jurgis wanders into a Socialist meeting and is transformed by an inspirational orator who describes a new dream, the dream of a Socialist utopia.
Kuper has been drawing “Spy vs. Spy” for Mad magazine for some time in a gritty minimalist manner, and in The Jungle his graphic style—figures rendered in an almost diagrammatic geometry, boldly, simply, outlined in stencil fashion and then deeply shadowed and air-brushed with the dull colors of a gloomy, overcast day—is a blunt instrument of attack on our sensibilities. The pictures are as bleak as Jurgis’ blighted fate, their carefully crafted crudeness a stark echo of the merciless grind that crushes his every chance at happiness and nearly ends his life as well. The faces of Kuper’s characters are skulls, their eyes glowing white holes in hollow ocular cavities. No life shines from within: they have become zombies, the walking dead casualties of the grim struggle to survive in capitalism’s industrial jungle.
The last three chapters of Sinclair’s novel virtually abandon narrative as the book becomes a tract. Jurgis appears occasionally between fervid speeches by heroic advocates for Socialism, but his story is lost in the declamatory excitement, and the drama of the tale evaporates forthwith. Kuper’s conclusion seems similarly weak but is not as disappointing dramatically. Kuper and his co-adapter Emily Russell clearly believe in improving the lot of ordinary workers in America and elsewhere, but I doubt that they think Socialism is the remedy Sinclair believed it to be. The word “socialism” appears only once in the graphic novel’s last pages, rather dimly lettered on a banner over the door to the lecture hall Jurgis enters, and the speaker he hears doesn’t use the word. Instead of encouraging his listeners to join a movement, the orator urges them to take action, to become their own deliverance. And then the audience throws hats into the air, chanting “Chicago will be ours!” While the jubilant imagery of this finale is in concert with the visual rhetoric of the book, the four pages of the conclusion seem pallid coming after 40 pages of Kuper’s vivid depiction of Jurgis’ misfortunes. Given the source material and the seeming reluctance of Kuper-Russell to advocate Socialism (whether from lack of conviction or from a decorous recognition that Socialism isn’t as popular a panacea as it once was), we should probably expect little else. Sinclair, at least, gave us glimpses of Jurgis, happily at work in the Socialist cause, providing a dramatic conclusion however feeble. But Kuper, wittingly or not, exploits the hollow conclusion he is left with, lending new meaning to the book: his last picture of Jurgis shows him cheering with the mob, and his eyes, and those of everyone in the picture, are still vacant white in cavernous sockets. They are zombies still, just animated by a different agenda.
Although The Jungle seems a period piece, welded so firmly to the early history of the last century that it can scarcely apply to our times, I kept thinking, as I followed Kuper’s version, that there was something hauntingly, vaguely, pertinent in the oppressive drama of Jurgis’ fate. Merely my own paranoia, probably—a disturbing sense that our lives today are as much beyond our control as Jurgis’ was then. Are the international businesses that today control U.S. foreign policy as sinister in their pervasiveness and as callous in regard to human suffering as the meat packing business was a hundred years ago? They are less obvious than the stinking slaughterhouses of yore, but are they less malevolent? Doubtless I’m reading too many of the wrong books and magazines, but whenever our somnolent news media wake up, as they have recently to the betrayals of the Bush League, their momentary vigilance serves mostly to suggest that a vast arena of unreported and not always benevolent activity lurks just beyond our ken, its existence all but denied by “powerful interests” and glossed over by a watchdog press too eager to be a lapdog. Take, for example, the under-reported story of Halliburton’s selling key components for a nuclear reactor to an Iranian oil development company as recently as January 2005. Read on.
MORE UNDER-REPORTING IN 2005 AND 2006
For thirty years at Sonoma State University in California (okay—I know, I know: the lala-land of the kooks and crackpots; but they can’t always be goofy with world-saving campaigns and dire prognostications about the end of life as we know it, can they?), Project Censored has published an annual list of the most important newsstories not covered by mainstream media, “a compilation of the best examples of journalism that the corporate media marginalized.” Project Censored is operated by the SSU Department of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences and has a “staff” of over 250 university and program staff, students, faculty, community experts, research interns, guest writers, and a panel of about two dozen “national judges,” newspaper columnists, faculty at other institutions, editors, and so forth. I’ve mentioned this outfit before, and while it is tempting to dismiss their findings as the wild fulminations of environmentalists, pro-lifers and other liberal wackos, I don’t. I follow the news closely enough to realize that the stories they bring up have, indeed, been “undercovered” by the major media. And you can usually tell why: the stories that would bump up against the vested interests of major businesses are stories that get swept under the carpet fairly quickly. So while I’d rather not be counted among the rabid wackos of these Unitey States, I don’t think Project Censored is in that bunch, and I therefore and forthwith present a quick summary and/or bald-faced listing of the top censored stories in 2005 and early 2006 from the just published report entitled Censored 2007. Here we go:
1. Future of Internet Debate Ignored by Media
A tug of war between two sides: on one side are consumers and services providers that advocate that cable companies continue to allow free access to their cable lines; on the other side, the cable companies, which, claiming the need to recoup investments they’ve made laying cable lines and expanding speed and quality, want to charge for the use of their cables. Probably the reason that ordinary news media haven’t much covered this on-going crisis is because it’s pretty complicated, with both sides presenting their arguments in ways that disguise their real agendas. It often appears, for instance, that what’s at issue is “regulation” of telephone companies, say. Well, yes, but certain kinds of regulation will ultimately have an inhibiting effect on the use of the Internet. Under the guise of debating regulations, legislation and court opinions are slowly foreclosing on free access. At the moment, the cable companies appear to be winning, and one reporter in this book says a recent court ruling “marks the beginning of the end for a robust, democratic Internet.” Mainstream Media are presumed to be against the continued “free” Internet and so they don’t cover the dispute. For more, try http://www.freepress.net. I’m not very clear on this myself, but as far as I can tell, the Internet is the greatest stride forward in human freedom since the discovery of fire: government, so far, cannot suppress the information available on the ’Net as it can the information it hoards and keeps from the traditional news media. More “regulation,” in the form of greater power for the FCC, will slowly erode the availability of the Internet, first to poor people, then to the rest of us.
2. Halliburton Charged with Selling Nuclear Technologies to Iran
As recently as January of 2005, Halliburton sold key components for a nuclear reactor to an Iranian oil development company. Frankly, I believe that the more engagement the West has with Iran and other Muslim dictatorships, the more the regimes in those countries will be weakened. So, let Halliburton do its thing. On the other hand, that Halliburton can get away with this sort of underhanded double-dealing with a potential enemy of the U.S.—one that is attempting to develop the nuclear capability that Halliburton is assisting with—is of-a-piece with the overall hypocrisy of the Bush League and Darth Cheney, its snarling mastermind and the chief beneficiary of Halliburton success; see No. 24 below.
3. Oceans of the World in Extreme Danger
The top half-mile of the ocean has warmed dramatically in the past forty years as a result of human-induced greenhouse gases. Atmospheric litter is also altering sea chemistry as thousands of toxic compounds poison marine creatures and devastate propagation.
4. Hunger and Homelessness Increasing in the U.S.
Despite claims of an improved economy, the number of hungry and homeless people in U.S. cities keeps growing. This in the most advanced nation on the planet!
5. High-tech Genocide in Congo
Six to seven million have died since 1996 as a consequence of invasions and wars sponsored by western powers trying to gain control of the region’s mineral wealth. Extortion, rape, massacres, and bribery are all part of the criminal networks set up and maintained by huge multinational companies.
6. Federal Whistleblower Protection in Jeopardy
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, charged with protecting whistleblowers, is dismissing hundreds of cases while advancing none.
7. U.S. Operatives Torture Detainess to Death in Afghanistan and Iraq
ACLU released documents about 44 autopsies held in Afghanistan and Iraq last October; 25 of those deaths are listed as homicides because detainees died during and after interrogation.
8. Pentagon Exempt from Freedom of Information Act
In December 2005, Congress passed the 2006 Defense Authorization Act which renders Defense Intelligence Agency “operational files” fully immune to FOIA requests, the main mechanism by which watchdog groups, journalists and individuals can access federal documents. This could frustrate the work of the ACLU and other organizations that have relied on FOIA to uncover more than 30,000 documents on the U.S. military’s involvement in the torture and mistreatment of foreign detainees.
9. World Bank Funds Israeli-Palestine Wall
The Wall will run deep into Palestinian territory, aiding the annexation of Israeli settlements and the breaking of Palestinian territorial continuity. The World Bank’s vision of “economic development,” however, evades any discussion of the Wall’s illegality. The new president of the World Bank, by the way, is Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-conservative architect of most of the collapse of civilization in the Middle East.
10. Expanded Air War in Iraq Kills More Civilians
If and when American soldiers leave Iraq, their function will be replaced by American airpower, which, as has been established, isn’t nearly as precise as it’s claimed and often misses targets and kills innocent civilians by the bushel.
Here’s the rest of the Top 25, mostly without elaboration:
11. Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Confirmed
12. Pentagon Plans to Build New Landmines
13. New Evidence Shows Dangers of Roundup, Most Widely Used Weedkiller in the World
14. Homeland Security Contracts KBR to Build Detention Centers in the U.S.
Sorry, can’t let this one go unimpeded. These centers are the 21st century version of the detention camps to which Japanese Americans were confined in World War II. Probably just a precaution in case the Bush League—employing recent legislation that lets it incarcerate anyone GeeDubya says is an “enemy combatant” without having to produce any evidence—decides some citizen is a threat to U.S. security. Or to Republican re-election plans. Or—well, you get the idea.
15. Chemical Industry Is Now EPA’s Primary Research Partner
16. Ecuador and Mexico Refuse to Sign Immunity Agreements for U.S. Military
17. Iraq Reconstruction Promotes OPEC Agenda
18. Physicist Concludes Official September 11 Explanation is Implausible According to the Laws of Physics
I’d run across this one before but because it seemed so much a wild-eyed conspiracy theory, I’d sort of dismissed it. Its presence on this list does not endorse it or validate its truth: this is a list of censored or ignored newsstories, remember, and there’s been precious little coverage of this one. According to Steven E. Jones, a physics professor (and a conservative) at Brigham Young University, the complete, rapid, and symmetrical collapse of the Twin Towers looks more like a successful demolition operation than a largely accidental or at least haphazard bombing-by-missile event. If so, who arranged for the demolition?
19. Destruction of Rainforests Worst Ever
20. Bottled Water: A Global Environmental Problem
The bottled water fad, inducing us to buy bottles of water the quality of which often isn’t any better than water from the tap, is producing vast quantities of garbage (those empty plastic bottles that don’t degrade) and is consuming great quantities of energy. And that’s not all. Here’s the joke: “At up to $10 a gallon, bottled water costs ore than gasoline in the U.S.” But you can’t run your car on it.
21. Gold Mining Company Threatens Ancient Andean Glaciers
22. Billions in Homeland Security Spending Undisclosed
23. U.S. Oil Targets Kyoto in Europe, Aiming to Derail Efforts at Reducing Greenhouse Gases
24. Cheney’s Halliburton Stock Rose over 3,000 Percent Last Year (2005)
25. U.S. Military in Paraguay Threatens Region
There now, feel better?
As I cast a wetly rolling eye over this list of terrors, I wonder if I haven’t, unbeknownst to me, joined the ranks of the wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. Are we really threatened on every hand by every menace known to man? Well, maybe, maybe not. Again, as I said before, this is a list of newsstories that have been largely ignored, or their implications overlooked. If some enterprising journalists had looked further into some of these matters, it’s possible the horrors would be exposed as exaggerated to the point of fabrication. But I would like to know just how the Twin Towers managed to come down in such an orderly, symmetrical way—almost as if they were being demolished by explosive charges placed at strategic points in the structures.
All the stories in the book are footnoted with the sources of the information, so it’s not easy to pooh-pooh the seeming truth of the allegations. And at the beginning of the book, one of those who endorses Project Censored is the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite himself. Order your copy of this enlightening book of alarmist nightmares at www.sevenstories.com where all 430 pages are available for $18.95.
ONWARD, THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
More Roving: The Efficacy of the Big Distraction
Immigration has become the Big Issue in this election in many states. Like the so-called War on Terror, illegal immigration has become the Big Distraction. Politicians love to talk about these two “issues” because then they don’t have to talk about Real Problems, things that matter but that voters might disagree about, and as every candidate knows, if a voter disagrees with a candidate, the voter might not vote for that candidate. The simple-minded logic of American political life, tovarich; sad but true. The War on Terror is safe: everyone agrees that we should stomp out terrorism, and as long as the candidates keep us cheering for that, they’re pretty sure we won’t talk about how screwed up the Invasion of Iraq is and how off-track Israel and Palestine are on the Road Map to Peace. Illegal immigration is also safe: everyone agrees that we need more secure borders in order to keep terrorists out, and as long as the candidates can keep is cheering for 700-mile fences between the U.S. and Mexico, they’re pretty sure we won’t notice the idiocy of the plan or the Real Problem. We can build that fence along our southern border, thumbing our noses at a widely held view that the wall between Israel and Palestine is obnoxious and an affront of the human spirit (which years to be free, that is, wall-less). Don’t look for logic in political double-think. So we can build that fence, but what will we do about our other borders, the ones that butt up against oceans? Another fence? Not likely.
Meanwhile, the Real Problem continues, unmentioned and ignored. The Real Problem is that we’ve never quite outgrown our need for slave labor. Everyone knows that the way to stem the flow of illegal immigrants is to eliminate the jobs they come here to find, the jobs that, reputedly, no American will take because they don’t pay enough. The way to eliminate this employment opportunity for immigrants is to go after the employers who hire illegal workers. But the minute someone suggests this as an eminently practical solution, someone else screams that our precious economy will be thrown out of whack if certain industries were not able to depend upon cheap, illegal immigrant labor. Some years ago, the Immigration folks cracked down on the employers of illegal immigrants in South Dakota, I think it was. Worked fine. Got rid of the illegal immigrants. None of the employers were jailed or fined; the illegal immigrants were just apprehended and send back to wherever they came from. But the businesses immediately complained to their congressmen, who, in turn, persuaded the Immigration folks to cool it. Businesses that depend upon cheap illegal immigrant labor couldn’t survive, they said, if they didn’t have that cheap labor; so for the survival of American business, we had to let illegal immigrants into the country to work. The cheapest labor of all was slave labor, which I thought we eliminated in the middle of the 19th century. But we have the next best thing, cheap illegal immigrant labor. But maybe we should eliminate it. Maybe the businesses that say they need cheap illegal immigrant labor should arrange to survive without it. Maybe they should raise the wages they’re willing to pay high enough to attract indigenous legal citizen labor. That would mean the price of their product would go up, and we’d all have to pay for it at the higher prices. Maybe that’s what we should have been doing ever since we outlawed slave labor.
Candidates all around the hustings are suddenly holier than their opponents. Or they hope they are. This ludicrous attempt to out-jesus each other is inspired by the panicky desire to attract the so-called “values voter,” who, the pundits were sure, voted Republican in the last general election and thereby kept the Republicans in control of Congress and the Halliburton House. So in order to prove they are as Christian as the next hypocrite, Democrat candidates are now voicing their faith and wearing their religion on their sleeves. Apparently in their religious fervor, none of them have read any of Matthew’s Chapter 6, which is actually quoting Jesus, the paragon they so often invoke. So I’ve decided to make the pertinent part handily available to them here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer; to wit:
“Be careful not to parade your righteousness [good deeds] before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.... And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Church and State, Religion in Government. This is a bad bargain. Nobody wins. As a tenet of knee-jerk liberality, most persons of that persuasion would fear a church-and-state lash-up because it would stuff someone else’s religion down their throats. That is doubtless one of the pitfalls of this seemingly devout proposal. But there’s another. I venture to guess that in every instance in which a nation has designated a particular religion the “state religion,” the religion has suffered. Usually, the religion has suffered from what every human institution suffers from: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. You can look it up. In any history book. F’instance, until Christianity was adopted as the official state religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity was almost, er, Christian—loving, compassionate, gentle. Once Christianity had the power conferred upon it by becoming the state religion, it was slowly corrupted, developing a hierarchy of priesthood and all the bureaucratic trappings of nationhood. And Christianity isn’t the only susceptible religion. Once Islam became the national religion of Arab countries, it, too, was corrupted, becoming warlike and intolerant. Christianity was no better by the time of the Crusades, deploying the monarchy-backed power of the sword to kill infidels by the score. If religion has any self-respect, not to mention hope for its ability to shape moral conduct, it will eschew any connection with the state that comes along. Stay pure. Stay moral. Avoid governmental power. We need to return to that Good Ol’ Time Religion, the National Religion.
THE NATIONAL RELIGION
America's religion is the world's most prominent secular kind—in short, the country's history and traditions. America is its own religion, as Norman Mailer is reputed to have said. "The religion of America is America," he said, to be precise. And it has its trinity, too—George Washington, the father (of his country), Abraham Lincoln (the savior of his country—who died for our sins on Good Friday), and the Holy Spirit (the Constitution). These are the things for which we have reverence. It's true that our money bears the legend "In God We Trust," but with that expression, we're merely labeling the true symbol of our worship.
Metaphors be with you.
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