Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin long ago established herself as a writer with the most enviable of careers. Nothing can compare to Goodwin’s role as one of the most revered in a long line of biographers of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Seven years ago, Goodwin published “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” a highly successful work now back in the spotlight as the basis of Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Lincoln.” Goodwin talked with the Monitor’s Erik Spanberg about the movie, her role in the making of it, and her next book. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
Q: How does it feel to have “Team of Rivals” back in the headlines?
It’s been a wild ride.... I finished the book in 2005 and [Steven] Spielberg got the rights to it in 2000. And it just happened luckily to come out during this time of the lame-duck session [of Congress] so that it sends a connection. We never could have imagined [how timely it would be] so many years ago, when both of us took so long to make the book and the movie.
Q: How did your book catch Spielberg’s attention?
Spielberg has always wanted to make a movie about Lincoln. It predated my book or my involvement. It’s been in his heart for a long time. I met [Spielberg], actually, in 1999.... And when he found out that I was doing a book on Lincoln – I was four years into the book at that time – he said, “Will you shake hands and I’ll get the first look at it when you’re done?” So, of course, I said yes. He decided [later] to acquire the rights, even though I was four years away from finishing.
Q: What is your relationship with Spielberg like?
He’s so warm and accessible that you feel like you know him even after you’ve met him just one or two times.
Q: What was your involvement with the movie?
The first thing was I got to know and become great friends with [screenwriter] Tony Kushner. So I’ve seen the various scripts from the beginning, ranging from ones that were much longer, covering a much longer period of time, down to this final, really smart decision to focus on those last four months. As soon as Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to take the role of Lincoln, and even before he was announced, Spielberg asked if I would take him to Springfield [Ill.] because [Day-Lewis] wanted to go through Lincoln’s house and his law office and see all the documents.... It [meant] so much to him. I can remember still when we went through Lincoln’s house and a lot of the ceilings are low in it. But more importantly ... he remembered the carpet and the wallpaper were so busy that he felt claustrophobic and he couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Which is how Lincoln felt. He was already absorbing it.
Q: What was it like on the set?
I went down to the filming in Richmond [Va.]. To see characters you’ve been living with for 10 years in your imagination now suddenly costumed and speaking lines that you know they actually said in real life and knowing that Daniel had mastered Lincoln’s voice, that high-pitched voice. And he had figured out the walk – we knew [Lincoln] walked like a laborer. And the warmth in his face when he would tell those stories. The one thing I teased Tony Kushner about endlessly is, “You’ve got to get Lincoln’s stories in there.” The stories were his means of communicating and, more importantly, whittling off sadness, so that his melancholy was dealt with. [Kushner] obviously got those stories in there to show that side of Lincoln. I’m often asked, “If you could only spend one dinner with Lincoln, what would you ask him?” And I know I’m supposed to say, as an historian, “What would you have done differently about Reconstruction?” But I know I would simply say, “Tell me one story after another.”
Q: What can you tell us about your next book?
Hopefully, it will be out in the late fall of 2013.... It’s really about Theodore Roosevelt’s ability to use the bully pulpit and [William Howard] Taft’s corresponding difficulty with it, even though they were such great friends and shared much of the ideology together. Until they split apart.... Edmund Morris’s [Theodore Roosevelt] trilogy is so fine, there’s no way I was going to write a biography of Theodore Roosevelt.... I’ve always been interested in the Progressive Era. Then when I read about [Roosevelt’s] friendship with Taft and knowing it had broken apart when they ran against each other in 1912, that became an angle. So it could be a different look at the era.
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.
Santa Claus. Saint Nick. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Are they all the same bearded guy with a "little round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly?"
As Catholics and other Christians know well, for his name is on hundreds of their churches, there really was a Saint Nicholas. And he really was a generous gift-giver. But he didn't have all those accoutrements, like the red-and-white outfit, the reindeer and the elves.
So how did Saint Nicholas become Father Christmas?
Adam C. English, associate professor of religion at North Carolina's Campbell University, explores that question and much more in his new book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra."
In an interview, we talked about the Saint Nicholas of history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and the reasons why a saint from the fourth century can inspire us today.
Q: Who was Saint Nicholas in real life?
A: The historical Saint Nicholas was born around the late third century or early fourth century. He lived his life in what is now the southwest shores of Turkey. He served as a bishop, a Christian pastor of the church in Myra, doing good works of gift-giving and generosity, serving the people as a true civil servant. There are stories of him bartering with grain ships to get grain to save the starving people of Myra, going to the capitol to appeal for lower taxes, interfering in court cases and saving three men from beheading.
As a young man, he inherits gold from his parents, and he hears of a man in town who's become desperately poor and is thinking about selling off his own daughters. Nicholas bags up some of that gold and throws it through his window. It's used as a dowry for one of the daughters. He returns two times so the other daughters might be able to marry.
Q: What did it mean then to sell off one's daughters?
A: Prostitution. We have decrees dating back to the early days of the Roman empire trying to curb that activity and try to prevent parents from selling daughters into prostitution and children into slavery.
While it seems inhumane, those options become very live and real when your options are to starve or freeze to death. It gives us a glimpse into some of the hardships of the time.
Q: Was he martyred like so many other saints?
A: No. He lives to a ripe old age.
Part of what appeals to people about Nicholas is precisely the ordinariness of his story and his life. Going back to that fourth century, most of the stories were about saints [who] died for the faith, were martyred in grisly ways. Or performed supernatural miracles or spent their lives in the desert as hermits.
He is an ordinary guy, doing ordinary acts of charity and working on behalf of the people. He's a saint to whom people can relate. He becomes the patron saint of sailors and children and unwed women, bakers, brewers and apothecaries, perfumers. Everybody loves Saint Nicholas.
Q: He sounds a bit like the apostle Peter, a man who isn't in a sphere above everyone else. Does that sound right?
A: Peter is such a relatable saint precisely because he doubts, he denies knowing the Lord, he questions, he has all the failings. He is you and me. We have those same doubts and questions.
Saint Nicholas is the same way. He's the kind of saint we can relate to. He's not writing long sermons or performing tremendous supernatural miracles. He is doing ordinary kinds of things.
The legends always have him in the trenches with the people, sometimes quite literally.
Most of the depictions of Nicholas depict him with briny salt in his beard. He's a working man saint. He's got brine in his beard, he's down there in the trenches, working with us. They depict that – him rolling up his sleeves and pitching in, getting in the ditch and pulling out an ox cart. That makes him all the more lovable.
Next to Mother Mary, there are more churches named after Nicholas than any other saint. In England, more than 500 churches alone. Only Mother Mary outnumbers his churches.
Q: Did he look like Santa Claus at all?
A: In the earliest images we have of him, he has a very stern, rigid look to his face. There's nothing warm and friendly about him at all.
And early on, he was known for his concerns and justice and civil action, protecting the people, not only for his warmth and generosity.
There's a little bit of that preserved in Santa Claus when he says he knows who's naughty and nice. Think about the lists. There's still a threat that he might leave a lump of coal.
Q: How did he inspire the Santa Claus story?
A: The tradition of Santa Claus really comes through early nineteenth century New York and the recovery of Dutch heritage. They're looking for heritage, tradition and roots, and to be Dutch is to celebrate Sinterklaas – give gifts on Saint Nicholas Day.
His day, December 6, had become associated with gift giving. By the 1100s, there are nuns in France making little toys, leaving them on the front doors of children and signing them as being from Saint Nicholas.
Introducing Sinterklaas is a way to introduce some Dutch heritage and to domesticate the Christmas tradition, make it safe for the family. At that time, Christmas had been a raucous affair with carousing and carolling in the streets.
Q: Why is it important to understand how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus?
A: By the early 20th century, when you think about our standardized picture of Santa Claus, he's rosy-cheeked, grandfatherly and completely divested of any Christian symbolism. He's just a jolly gift giver. And when reading books about Nicholas and Santa Claus, it often sounds like Nicholas is the prologue.
I want to make the Santa Claus the epilogue to the story of Nicholas. If we can introduce Nicholas into Christmas celebrations, it will really enrich the season. You have a story of a real man who is doing good works, living a good life and being generous. What he's doing is really providing models for Christian living and action.
So often our Christmas traditions focus on giving gifts to family members and friends. He's giving gifts to people he doesn't know, people in dire need. When we bring Nicholas into the Christmas tradition, it will challenge us to go beyond gift-giving to family and friends and reach out to those we don't know who are in true need.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
When the world celebrates Christmas this week and Easter next year, it will walk in the steps of the apostle Paul. While he never met Jesus, Paul played a crucial role in focusing early Christianity on Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection.
In his new book "Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity," biblical historian James D. Tabor explores how this one man – stubborn, cranky and powerful – forever influenced a fledgling faith.
In an interview, I asked Tabor, chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, about Paul's teachings, his impact, and the never-ending debate over his legacy.
Q: How was Paul important to the development of Christianity?
A: Paul packages things – "I believe this, this and this" – and puts the movement on the road to the wider non-Jewish world and out of the Jewish context.
As Judaism, it's not going to go forth and become a universal faith, particularly considering the observances of Judaism that separate people and make them Jewish, like circumcision. In Paul's day, circumcision was seen as a mutilation [among non-Jews].
This was dropped, along with the dietary laws. The idea was that you didn't have to convert to Judaism in a formal way to be a Christian: You didn't have to say "I'm Jewish" to say "I follow Jesus." You could be baptized and accept Jesus as your savior and be born again, then you would be a Christian. You wouldn't be a Jew.
This separation begins to develop, and Paul really formulates that.
Q: How does he define what Christianity is?
A: The idea that to be saved, to be in favor with God, to have eternal life and spiritual salvation, is to believe that Jesus died for your sins, to accept Him as your savior, to ask [Jesus] to come into your hearts – all of that, I think we get from Paul.
Without that, you'd have something more like a Jewish wisdom teacher, [the Jesus of] the Sermon on the Mount: Love your enemies, treat the poor justly, turn the other cheek.
If someone said,"I believe in caring for the poor and turning the other cheek and trying to treat my enemies justly and giving liberty to the oppressed," you might think that doesn't mean a new religion. That's a set of ethics.
Q: How does Paul convince people that he can speak for the faith?
A: He's going by his visions, since he's never met Jesus.
We have the 12 apostles, we have James, the brother of Jesus, and then you have Paul who comes along. He says,"I've seen the Lord, too," but he means he's seen in this visionary, clairvoyant experience.
Q: He comes across as quite stern. How would you describe his personality?
A: He was prickly, that's for sure. He was certainly fiery, and he was very dogmatic about his experiences, an absolute self-assured dogmatism that could really get in your face.
If pushed or questioned, he can start sounding nasty. And if you don't accept his authority, he can sound very arrogant and egotistical.
[In essence], he says, "Christ appeared to me last, but not least." He's saying, "I was the last of the apostles, the 13th apostle, but I worked hardest of them all. I'm not the least bit inferior."
Q: How did Paul affect Christianity's emphasis on the birth of Christ?
A: The celebration of Christmas came a couple hundred years later. But he does have a lot to do with Christmas. He comes along before the gospels are written, and he's the earliest source to say Jesus existed before his birth, and he's born of a woman, and then he's crucified and died and raised from the dead.
He lays the groundwork for the Christmas story. It's not just celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's celebrating that Mary the virgin brings forth a child who has no human father – the divine son of God, born of a virgin in Bethlehem and worshiped by wise men and angels.
Q: How does Paul influence Christianity today?
A: With few exceptions, the branches are heavily indebted to Paul because they all share the Christian creeds.
As far as looking to Paul directly, it's more the conservative, fundamentalist Protestants who really concentrate on Paul. I don't think they would ever say this, but if you watch what they teach and emphasize, if they quote Paul, it's as if you're quoting God. Paul settles the issue.
Q: What about the liberal strains of Christianity?
A: They emphasize more of the liberal teachings of Jesus.
Paul, however, sees the message as about Jesus. He says the main message of Jesus is his crucifixion, his resurrection.
It takes St. Francis to come along and say, "Maybe it's about how we live. Wouldn't it be a challenge to live [as Jesus] taught?"
Christianity lives with that kind of tension, between Christianity as a set of beliefs, a creedal statement, and Christianity as a way of life.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Ah, the story of "Snow White." What could be more traditional or child-appropriate?
Sure, that emphasis on Snow White being the fairest one of all may be a little much nowadays, and some parents may roll their eyes at Snow being judged by her housekeeping skills. But hey, it's been around for generations, right? What a kid-friendly story. From sweet Snow White herself, to those friendly dwarves, to the part where the corset almost chokes her to death....
Oh, right. There are a few sections of the most classic "Grimm's Fairy Tales" stories that may have been left out of your version and there are others that you may just have forgotten about. For instance, the part where Cinderella's stepsisters start slicing up their feet – remember that?
We thought not. Here are a few other of the oddest and most violent parts of the traditional "Grimm" stories.
1. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
Even the Disney version gets a little gruesome, with the queen asking for Snow White's heart from the huntsman. However, in the original Grimm version, the witch first tries to sell Snow a corset, which Snow tries on and which then causes her to pass out because it's so tight, causing the witch to think she's dead. In addition, in some versions, it's not that kiss from the prince that awakens Snow White from her enchanted slumber. In an alternate version of the fairy tale the prince asks the dwarves if he can make the funeral arrangements, and when his servants start to carry the coffin, one trips, causing the lump of apple inside Snow's throat to dislodge. Oh, how romantic!
Well, first of all, in the original "Grimm" version, Rapunzel was 12. In addition, in that same version, the blonde princess gives away the prince's visits by asking her adoptive witch mother why her gown is getting too small. Apparently, she became pregnant. She gives birth to twins after she's been banished there by the witch.
3. "Hansel and Gretel"
The two siblings were apparently the children of fairly heartless parents. Not only does their father allow himself to be swayed by his new wife's suggestion that they abandon Hansel and Gretel in the woods so they'll have fewer mouths to feed, but the first time that the kids go in the woods, they save themselves by gathering white pebbles which they use the next day to mark their path. When their parents plan to bring them into the woods a second time and the children try to leave the house to get more pebbles, the parents lock them inside to prevent them from doing so.
Also, it's a well-known part of the story – although easy to forget – that it's innocent little Gretel who ends up killing the witch. Sheesh.
In the "Grimm" iteration, Cinderella's two stepsisters are so desperate to become the wife of the prince that when the glass slipper fails to fit them, they cut off parts of their feet. And if that's not enough, at Cinderella's wedding, what the Grimm brothers seem to view as karmic doves fall upon the stepsisters and peck their eyes out so they are blind for the rest of their lives.
In the publishing industry, 2012, we think, will be remembered as the year of self-publishing.
That’s because at a time when bookstores – mainstream and indie – are struggling to stay open and when top publishing houses are scrambling to keep footing in a rapidly changing industry, there is one bright spot in the publishing industry: self-publishing.
The latest evidence of self-publishing’s ascendency? New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, one of the country’s most influential, and often scathing, critics, chose a self-published title as one of her favorite books of the year, a landmark moment for self-publishing.
Sharing shelf space with Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and Oliver Sacks on Kakatuni’s most prized picks of the year is Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever.” Sepinwall, a TV blogger, self-published the book in November after failing to catch the interest of a traditional publisher. It’s a critical analysis of hit TV dramas like “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “24,” which, Sepinwall argues, have transformed the TV landscape and allowed TV to “step out from the shadow of the cinema.”
In her review of the book, Kakatuni, known as one of the country’s toughest critics, called the “The Revolution” “engaging ... smart [and] observant.”
Since being picked up by the New York Times, adds the UK’s Guardian, "The Revolution Was Televised" “is currently number one on Amazon.com’s ‘television’ chart, and has picked up adulatory write-ups in the New Yorker...."
Of course, this is simply the latest example of self-publishing’s ascendancy, but it’s certainly not the first, nor, we think, the last. In fact, points out NPR, self-publishing has enjoyed a remarkably rapid rise from last-rate reputation to best-seller status.
“They used to call it the ‘vanity press,’ and the phrase itself spoke volumes,” said NPR’s Lynn Neary in a recent broadcast. “Self-published authors were considered not good enough to get a real publishing contract. They had to pay to see their book in print. But with the advent of e-books, self-publishing has exploded, and a handful of writers have had huge best-sellers.”
Writers like Amanda Hocking, the 20-something writer who was rejected by so many publishing houses that she sailed right past them – and straight up the record books when her self-published supernatural romances hit 1 million-plus in sales.
And John Locke, the 60-something businessman-turned-thriller writer who has sold more than 1 million Kindle e-books. And Hugh Howey, whose self-published tales of life after the apocalypse have garnered him hundreds of thousands of fans.
It’s no wonder self-published books have almost tripled in production since 2008, making up 43 percent of print titles released in 2011, as the Monitor’s Molly Driscoll wrote in a blog post this fall.
In fact, so promising does self-publishing now appear, one of the country’s publishing giants, Simon & Schuster, recently teamed up with a self-publishing company to create a self-publishing imprint. That’s like the Boston Red Sox joining forces with Smalltown Little League.
NYT critic Kakatuni’s decision to include a self-published book in her list of the year’s best reads? As the the Guardian put it, it’s just “the cherry on the cake for a stellar year for self-publishing."
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Rifles aren't new. Far from it, in fact. The firearm that sits in millions of American homes – and became a weapon of mass destruction in this year's horrific killings – has a history that goes back for centuries. Alexander Rose, a New York historian, tracked the history of the ubiquitous weapon in the well-received 2008 book "American Rifle: A Biography."
This week, I asked Rose to look back at the rifle's history, explore its evolution from civilian to military use, and consider its future. Since he focuses on history and technology instead of modern political debates, we left the issue of contemporary gun control for others to discuss.
Q: When did the rifle first appear?
A: The rifle made its first appearance in Europe in the early-modern era, around the 16th century, but there were exceedingly few of them. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century brought their gunsmithing skills and blended English-style muskets with German rifle technology to create a specifically American hybrid, popularly known as a "Kentucky rifle."
At that time, the distinctive difference between a rifle and the standard musket was that the former's barrel was grooved and the latter's was smooth. Among other things, the grooves imparted spin and stability to a bullet as it hurtled through the barrel, allowing it to fly farther and truer than a musket's.The downside was that it took much, much longer to load a rifle than a musket, so it was really a question of quality versus quantity.
Q: Was the rifle initially used for hunting or for military uses?
A: Paradoxically for a gun so closely identified with the military, the rifle began life as a weapon you'd have around the house – if you lived in a cabin in the woods and mountains of the 18th-century frontier – because you needed it for protection and, most importantly, hunting.
The rifle put food on the table, in other words.
For their owners, rifles' relative accuracy and range more than compensated for their high maintenance, the long hours of necessary practice, and their low rate of fire. It had virtually no military use for a very long time.
Q: How did the rifle then become a military tool?
A: Eighteenth-century armies relied on massed, synchronized broadsides to demolish the foe's formations in short order, a tactical task that required fast-loading muskets rather than rifles, which were much more fiddly and needed no little training to master. That meant that rifles were essentially restricted to specialists. They were a kind of niche interest.
During the War of Independence, for instance, the Americans mobilized small bands of backwoods riflemen, but not for very long and to very little practical effect. The vast majority of Revolutionary combat between the armies was conducted by musket, not rifles.
It wouldn't be until just before the Civil War that the two competing types of weapon – rifle and musket – merged to form what was known briefly as a "rifle-musket," soon shortened to just "rifle." And their once-distinct roles were united. Since then, rifles have been a staple of every army in the world.
Q: When did rifles become controversial?
A: Depends on what you mean by "controversial." I can't really think of anyone in, say, the nineteenth century who wanted to ban them outright or the like.
Within military circles, there were polite and intellectual debates over the proper employment of rifles and muskets on the battlefield and, later, between advocates of single-shot rifles and repeating ones. There were also debates concerning the appropriate caliber of ammunition, the use of magazines to feed cartridges into the chamber, the introduction of semiautomatic mechanisms, and so forth. But this is par for the course with any form of technology.
Within military organizations, there are always ongoing, evolving debates between contending factions or schools of thought. The central debate of the last few centuries has concerned the relative importance of firepower and marksmanship in warfare, the quantity and quality question I mentioned before. Pretty much everything gets back to that issue somewhere along the line.
Q: When and how did rifles become something that people wanted to limit or ban? Is that a late 20th-century development?
A: Guns, not rifles in particular, have always been subject to bans or restrictions, but such attempts stem from diverse motives and vary from culture to culture.
Thus, in the Greek and Roman era, there was an aristocratic suspicion of projectile weapons (bows, spears), because the cowardly killed from afar rather than up close. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this snobbery was applied to bullet-launching weapons. Shakespeare, in "Henry IV," Part 1, mentions a "certain lord" who claims that "but for those vile guns, he would himself have been a soldier."
There were, accordingly, efforts to suppress their use on the battlefield, partly for reasons of noble prestige and partly for reasons of economy (armor did not come cheap, after all).
In seventeenth-century America, the various powers (England, France, and Holland) made sure to stop guns reaching hostile Indian tribes but freely traded with those allied with them. In this instance, limitations were imposed for purely geopolitical reasons.
During the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, there were strenuous efforts to restrict the supply of gunpowder and ammunition, if not weaponry, to Indians in order to suppress what we would probably call guerrilla warfare and to make them more reliant on Washington (and more willing to sign treaties in return for gunpowder). So, here we see gun restrictions being used for military and strategic gains.
Over in Japan, on the other hand, the Tokugawa shogunate used firearms to instill order and then banned them outright (even its own) for the sake of stability and the preservation of its sword-based samurai hegemony. Meanwhile, the ruling Mamelukes in Egypt forbade guns, not because they feared uprisings or loved swords, but because they thought them suitable only for Christian infidels.
Q: When did the rifle become a "sexy" weapon, one that people prized for its sleekness, its beauty, and so on? Was that an early development or a modern one?
A: I'm not entirely convinced that "sexy" is the correct way to describe a rifle. I think "aesthetics" is probably more useful in this context.
Soldiers have always liked beautiful weapons. Look at any display of medieval arms, Japanese swords, or Enlightenment dueling pistols. The rifle is no different, for the most part.
Probably the most classically elegant rifle was the eighteenth-century Kentucky, but one could also argue for the M16 – a product of the Space Age, using futuristic materials, based on a visually striking design – as a leading contender for the crown.
In sum, rifle aesthetics tend to reflect their environment and the culture that produced it. It's striking, I think, that the Soviet AK-47, certainly the world's most notorious rifle, is, to my mind, also starkly ugly. It's a characteristic product of a Stalinist culture and brutalist mindset.
Q: What's next for the evolution of rifles?
A: The end of the rifle is always nigh, so it has been traditionally proclaimed. One hears this sometimes nowadays, as robots and advanced technology increasingly dominate the battlefield. Perhaps, but I don't think so.
The rifle is here to stay, if only because it is the most useful object issued to soldiers. Its future form, however, is an interesting question.
Some analysts predict that there will be a Great Leap Forward in rifle technology that will render current models instantly obsolete. Again, I'm not so sure.
For most of the rifle's history, change has been gradual and incremental, mostly because genuine technological "revolutions" are rather infrequent, but also because the old, tried-and-true technology "just works," whereas the flashy, new stuff has not been tested in the field. And who wants to be a guinea pig when the bullets are flying?
Personally, I think the rifle of the future will look a lot like the rifle of the past and of the present.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
So, this guy tries to steal a loaf of bread, one lousy loaf. Gets caught. No public defender. Convicted. Serves 19 years as a galley slave. Hates the world. But a hundred and some years later, this convict becomes the male lead (top billing) in full-length feature film dramas (1934, 1935, 1952, 1958, 1982, and 1998), a 1952 TV movie, a TV miniseries in 2000, and a pretty good 1995 cinematic knock-off. Then there’s the long-running Broadway musical. A musical! You gotta be kidding, right?
Translate the above skepticism into argot that is typical in most American prisons today, and you would have the flavor of the response I got from my inmate-students when I ventured the possibility of having those in my in-prison English Composition class take on “Les Miserables.” What was I thinking?
Well, with the blockbuster 2012 version mounting publicity barricades to fend off assaults (in the awards wars) from a Civil War epic, a secret military mission into Pakistan, and an Iran hostage rescue, my thoughts turned to the Victor Hugo classic (first published in 1862). I wish I had tried to get Jean Valjean into a pair of Connecticut and New York prisons.
Department of Corrections officials are the turnkeys as to curriculum entries. Would they have obliged? The novel is at core a story of redemption and purification, with a few bits of recidivism and full doses of deception-and-evasion to heighten the drama.
Assuming a DOC official looked into the text – actually started to read the novel – would that official have been put off by Victor Hugo’s 1862 preface, which speaks of the “social condemnation” which “artificially creates hells on earth”?
Inmate-students would surely identify with the wretched fellow (“an apparition of ill omen") released from prison galleys after 19 years, who bears the looks of fear and distrust from righteous townspeople; who seeks a meager meal and base lodging only to be turned away again and again; who is so desperate that he seeks lodging in a prison only to be turned away there, too; who, at the age of 25 and unemployed, had turned to stealing (small-time, to be sure) in a desperate effort to feed his widowed sister and her seven children, and who “entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering” and went out, 19 years later, “hardened.”
How ready are DOC officials, corrections officers, parole officers, and pardons commissioners to take cognizance of the “Ignominy that thirsts for respect”? Maybe they are quite right in being wary and suspicious, for how many Jean Valjeans are there among the two million incarcerated in U. S. prisons? Heck, how many Jean Valjeans are there in society at large?
In the galleys, Valjean “had constituted himself an inner tribunal” and “began by arraigning himself.” He blamed himself for not having the patience to wait for work or pity, and for imagining that he could “escape from misery by theft.” His (well, probably, Victor Hugo’s) verdict on life’s turns: “Theft is a bad door for getting out of misery,” for it’s the portal by which one “enters into infamy.” Inmates could identify. DOC would approve.
However, reading on, Hugo delivers a verdict against “savage and excessive punishment” which amounts to an “abuse” by penalty of law that was disproportionate to the crime of the guilty. I can hear a chorus of approval from inmates and imagine frowns of disapproval from the DOC. And yet, could the DOC argue with a convict’s conscience-directed rehabilitation? After all, Jean Valjean did not have the thief gene.
What makes Valjean so interesting is his transformation. Rightly, he felt oppressed, humiliated and despised: “If a millet seed under a millstone had thoughts, doubtless it would think what Valjean thought.” His hatred consumed him and encompassed everyone, not just the law that had condemned and punished him. My God, what if he had had a Glock?
He “condemned society and sentenced it to his hatred... He had no weapon but his hate... a desire to injure.” On his release, Valjean would have been rightly labeled dangerous and vengeful. Thank goodness he didn’t have a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle with several high-capacity magazines.
What Valjean did have was the good fortune, serendipity, or whatever, to steal silver plates from Monseigneur Bienvenu, “whose days were full to the brim with good thoughts, good words, and good actions.” This bishop “buys” Valjean’s soul by lying to law enforcement: claiming that he had given the parish silver house plates to Valjean.
The DOC would rightly, and readily, point out that very few inmates have the good fortune, serendipity or whatever, to have their hatred “checked in its growth by some providential event.”
Okay, right, but I wish I had championed the reading of “Les Miserables” because – 150 years ago – through the telling of Valjean’s life journey (yeah, cliché, I know), Victor Hugo provided a perpetual annuity of providential events and a call for clemency.
That would have been my reply brief to the DOC. But I never made the case to begin with.
There were pedagogic considerations, of a sort: Yes, for sure, I would have been on a mission of virtue worthy of Monseigneur Bienvenu and Father Madeleine if I had poked and picked through tables of paperbacks at public library book sales in search of gently-read copies of the novel. But even if the used-book-buyers’ providence had shined on me and I acquired three dozen copies (for a grand outlay south of sixty dollars), there was a hitch. The inmate students would be reading an assortment of translations and a variety of editions. While we might struggle to line up our own abridgements, to come together by meticulously correlating to book chapter headings, that would have taken some time, and added some difficulty to an undertaking that loomed at 500 pages or thereabouts.
Still, most of the inmate-students who qualified to take courses (for community college credit) would have been disposed to taking themselves out of their cinderblock for a few hours a day, to put themselves in France, in 1795, when Valjean bungled his bread burglary and was first packed off to the galleys.
Most of the inmates who qualified to take my Composition and Lit courses were motivated to get away from the prison tedium for a few hours a week and be transported for still more hours of reading that took them out of the cells mentally, and sometimes psychologically and even spiritually. They have more time than the typical college student – no clubs or frats (well, none that prison officials would countenance), no extracurriculars (that corrections officers were aware of), no highway traffic jams and jammed student parking lots, and no road trips (other than for a mandatory court appearance, a funeral of a close family member, or a medical matter so serious it could not be dealt with inside).
Many of those inmate-students made better use of their time than many of my community college students on the outside. Most read with relish the few books I managed to scrounge and get approved for entry. They would have related readily to Jean Valjean: Many would relate to his desperation, prodigious strength, failure to mount an effective defense, resentments of the shackle and chain, identity as a number (prisoner 24601and later 9430), discomfiture on re-entry, attempts to assume and preserve a new identity, apprehensions about his past (and a pursuer) catching up to him, nemeses and opportunistic informers, escape mindset, strategies for absorbing disdain and ostracism, overriding concern for the child he is determined to protect, and struggles with conscience.
One inmate, who was a mainstay of the group that stayed after class until “final count,” asked what it was like for “this Valjean dude” to be on the run.
If I had had my wits about me, I would have said (as Victor Hugo did), that Jean Valjean was “like all those joyless fugitives who endeavor to throw off the track, the spy of the law, and social fatality, by pursuing an obscure and undulating itinerary.”
Asked about his conflicts, I would have tried to recall this: “He might be said to carry two knapsacks: In one he had the thoughts of a saint. In the other, the formidable talents of a convict. And he helped himself from one or the other as the occasion required.”
Asked what Valjean would do if released from the prison where we were standing, my reply was something along these lines: He would start a manufacturing business and be the kind of factory owner who would employ ex-cons. He would buy books to stock the prison library. He’d fund vocational classes and re-entry counseling, and anger management. He’d provide seed money for entrepreneurial efforts that would stabilize a neighborhood. He’d fund after-school programs, youth leagues, and vocational training programs. He’d probably channel bail money to those who had been wrongly accused and pay for appellate counsel for those unfairly prosecuted.
With the advent of the new “Les Miserables” my thoughts again turned to the possibility of promoting the novel. I would be tempted to pass over chapters in which Jean Valjean does not figure prominently. A literary trangression? I would think about making references to several of those “imprisoned” by Dickens: Abel Magwitch (“Great Expectations”) and Arthur Clennam (“Little Dorrit”). Literary conceits?
Assuming DOC readers might actually work their way through “Les Miserables,” the politics and Valjean’s abandoning the “law and order” legions for the rebels’ barricade might do in any proposal.
My pitches to the DOC spoke of individual responsibility and rectitude. My reading lists include stories of reprehensible conduct duly punished and admirable conduct duly rewarded (in the end, anyway).
Once past the alarms set off by the title, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was usually a “go.” On the other hand, “Birdman of Alcatraz” would never fly. Robert Stroud, murderer turned ornithologist, had a mean and violent streak: imprisoned for taking one life, he took another while in prison.
Yeah, Valjean’s story was one to promote. A hero who does not act out of heroism, but out of a desire to do good and a sense of duty, has a lot of appeal. In the early chapters, we learn about his path to theft and chains, and then as the story unfolds, there are five high-risk rescues: the children from a house ablaze; the fellow being crushed under his heavily-load cart; the man wrongly mistaken for and prosecuted as the recidivist Valjean, who is spared “the living burial of the prison galleys” by Valjean’s in-court absolutions; the topman dangling high above a ship’s deck and the harbor’s cold waters, “oscillating like a stone in a sling”; and the wounded young insurrectionist carried from the barricades to safety via the sewers of Paris.
Few inmates speak of New Year’s resolutions. Their calendars count time served and days until their parole hearing. Their calendars mark a court date for a possible rehearing or an appeal – or a visit from the person they’ve been distanced from. They count the days until release, but “freedom does not liberate them from condemnation and shunning.”
They may not be hunted and haunted by a Javert (who Valjean could have shot but spares). Yet, they are – perhaps quite justifiably in some (many?) cases – condemned to the stigma of having been a convict.
Yeah, re-entry is no picnic, no walk in the park. Still, Victor Hugo’s observations might be worth lingering over: He likened remorse to a tide that returns to man’s shore (conscience) again and again: an upheaval of the soul. Valjean no longer has a taste for hate. He tastes “the bitter flavor of a wicked thought” and “spits it out with disgust.”
Maybe, just maybe, in some prison there’s “a white-hair” who, like Jean Valjean, will discover the alchemy of turning hate into service – with help (considerable help, to be sure) of Providence.
Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. In additional to his work in prisons and at community colleges, he teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.
Another victory for the Department of Justice?
If approved, the settlement leaves just one publisher – Macmillan – and Apple as the lone defendants in the government’s suit, to be argued in court next year. Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins have already agreed to settle.
Under the settlement, Penguin must submit to an antitrust compliance program and is prohibited from entering into new agreements that constrain retailers’ ability to offer discounts and promotions for a period of two years.
“The proposed settlement with Penguin will be an important step toward undoing the harm caused by the publishers' anticompetitive conduct and restoring retail price competition so consumers can pay lower prices for Penguin's e-books,” said Jamillia Ferris, chief of staff and counsel at the Justice Department's antitrust division, according to the AP.
But in announcing the settlement, Penguin denied any wrongdoing. “Penguin has always maintained, and continues to maintain, that it has done nothing wrong and has no case to answer,” the publisher said in a statement.
Instead, it has agreed to settle due to its impending merger with Random House. The two publishers announced their plans to join forces in October. If approved by the European Union, Penguin Random House will be the world’s largest publisher and control about 25 percent of all books published in the US.
Considering the publishers’ impending betrothal, it was critical that Penguin settle. “It is also in everyone’s interests that the proposed Penguin Random House company should begin life with a clean sheet of paper,” the company said. (Random House was not involved in the DOJ case.)
The DOJ filed its suit due to an agreement Apple struck with publishers in 2010 as part of the tech company’s iBookstore launch that debuted a pricing rubric called the agency model. This allowed publishers, rather than retailers, to set their own prices for e-books, then take a percentage of sales, rather than a fixed price. The arrangement was an effort to counter Amazon’s deep discounts. But in the Justice Department’s view, it represented an illegal price fixing collusion.
Last week the European Union accepted settlements by four publishers and Apple, thus bringing its investigation to an end. That leaves only Apple and Macmillan to fight the case in an American court next year.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
We can’t think of a better way to explore New York – or any city for that matter – than by way of a self-conducted literary tour, as book critic Dwight Garner recently did, with energy and exuberance, for The New York Times.
Spread across the pages of the Sunday Times in tantalizing detail was Garner’s assignment in “A Critic’s Tour of Literary Manhattan”: to “crisscross the island for a few days” to determine whether Manhattan’s literary life, as novelist Gary Shteyngart once lamented, was fading away.
“I wanted to take in Manhattan as a literary tourist,” writes Garner, once senior editor of The New York Times Book Review. “I wanted to touch base with haunts old and new. I wanted to see if there is still, for a certain kind of bibliophilic seeker, as Simone de Beauvoir put it, ‘something in the New York air that makes sleep useless.’”
Literary Manhattan, Garner determined after speaking with several writers and editors, “doesn’t seem to have the wattage it once did.” The culprits? The smoking ban was a “death knell” for the drawn-out hang-outs critical to literary life; the Internet obviated some writers’ need for companionship and consolation; creative energy has largely gone into food, where indie types are churning out artisanal pickles, chocolates, and beers, rather than literary works; and the bookish crowd, in large part, has dispersed into Brooklyn, where folks can actually eke out a life on a writer’s pay.
Nonetheless, Manhattan’s book culture remains vibrant, eclectic, and enduring, if somewhat leaner and occasionally regrettably modernized.
For his enviable assignment, Garner installed himself at the Algonquin, “the Midtown hotel where Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and others once traded juniper-infused barbs, and used it as a launching pad to crisscross the island for a few days...”
Among his stops: Café Loup, a “genteel but unpretentious West Village bistro” that editor of the Paris Review Lorin Stein calls “the closest thing I know of to a writer’s hangout in the old-fashioned sense”; Nuyorican Poets Café, a “warm and jubilant” haunt on the Lower East Side where raucous poetry slams are alive and well; KGB Bar, “a dark, intimate Soviet-themed... space” where cult novelist Kris Saknussemm “soloed like a jazz master” while “declaiming bits of his new autobiographical book, ‘Sea Monkeys’”; and Lolita in SoHo, where “the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls,’” and the only readers were carrying Kindles. “When it’s no longer possible to tell what attractive young women are reading,” writes Garner, “part of the romance of Manhattan is gone.”
And while Garner finds the Algonquin, where “Do Not Disturb” signs read, “Quiet Please: Writing the Great American Novel,” “a bit chilly and corporate,” literary visitors to New York have other options. There’s the “sleek and geeky” Madison Ave. Library Hotel, not far from the New York Public Library, where the floors are categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System and each of the 60 rooms contains a set of books “devoted to a topic within that category.”
(Those with deeper pockets shelve their luggage at the new NoMad Hotel, housed in a turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts building where the cocktail lounge-cum-library features “two vaulting stories of lighted bookcases connected by a spiral staircase imported from the South of France.”)
And though the city has far fewer bookstores than it once did (Book Row, along Fourth Ave., housed some three-dozen used bookstores before the last one closed in 1988), “the city’s survivors are beautiful to behold,” says Garner.
The highlights: Bauman Rare Books in Midtown, a temple to rare volumes, dearly priced; the small and expertly curated 192 Books in Chelsea; the brilliantly-named Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in the West Village; and the charitable Housing Works Bookstore Café in SoHo. Garner’s favorites? St. Mark’s Bookshop on the Lower East Side, where you go “when you need a reminder that the world’s literary culture is still big and weird and vibrant,” and The Strand, where “It’s worth flying in from London simply to browse the stacks.”
By the end of his literary tour, writes Garner, “I was smitten all over again.”
So are we. We reveled in Garner’s word-fueled romp through Manhattan, even more so after discovering that not only is literary Manhattan is alive and well, but that we can play a role in enriching literary cultures of cities across the nation if we engage in literary tours in our own cities. Visiting precious used bookshops, quirky indies, prized historic sites, famous scenes and settings with literary associations, and beloved literary hangouts, from trendy cafes to sober libraries to underground dives – what a wonderful way to discover a city and to encourage vibrant literary cultures in cities and towns across the country. We can’t wait to plan our own literary tour.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Movie and corporate tie-ins are nothing new – just ask any kid who ever got his own plastic Simba from McDonald's. But a somewhat unexpected pairing arose when the restaurant chain Denny’s announced that it would be serving a “Hobbit” menu to coincide with the release of “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” the first movie in the planned “Hobbit” trilogy.
The menu includes such items as Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies (named for the wizard Radagast the Brown), Gandalf’s Gobble Melt, Bilbo’s Berry Smoothie, and Hobbit Hole Breakfast. The “Hobbit” offerings will be available at Denny’s locations through early January.
Reviews of the dishes have so far been middling. Phoenix writer Alexandra Cavallow wrote that the Hobbit Hole, which consisted of fried eggs, hash browns, cheddar buns and bacon, was fine, though unhealthy. “But one imagines you'd need to carbo-load before risking life and limb in Mordor, so it made sense,” she wrote. “And those egg-filled cheddar buns were good.”
Wisconsin State Journal writer Rob Thomas said he was a little overwhelmed by the breakfast appetizer titled the Lonely Mountain Treasure, which was essentially lemon poppy seed nuggets with cream cheese frosting for dipping. “I'm sorry, I'm just too frightened right now to check the caloric content of that,” he wrote. “It was as if I could feel the baleful Eye of Mordor staring down and me and saying, 'You're going to eat all that? Really? Even my orcs have a little fruit with breakfast.' ”
He said conclusions about the menu overall were hard to draw.
“I don't know if I can honestly say, ‘If you love “The Hobbit,” you'll love Denny's!’ Nor can I say with authority, ‘If you love Denny's, you'll love “The Hobbit!”’ What I can say is that both things exist, in the same time and space, in America.”
Visitors to the website io9, which featured pictures of the food available through the “Hobbit” menu, seemed confused and impressed by the fact that the promotion was happening at all.
“Who knew that a character from the Silmarillion, which is basically where Tolkien put all the appendixes that wouldn't fit in Lord of the Rings, would one day be given his own promotional breakfast food?” a commenter named JulieMarieC wrote.