Friday, December 24, 2010

The Power of Words: A Review of Mark Oppenheimer's 'Wisenheimer'

My only disappointment with Mark Oppenheimer’s recently published memoir, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, came about a third of the way through the book.

That is when Oppenheimer, who now writes about religious topics for the New York Times, reveals that the debate world he inhabited in junior high and high school was not that of policy debate – the sort familiar to the vast majority of high school debaters who compete under the auspices of the National Forensic League and the National Catholic Forensic League – but rather a more rarefied style of parliamentary debate, more familiar in Britain and Commonwealth countries and, apparently, in New England prep schools like the one Oppenheimer attended.

If one needs further proof that Oppenheimer's debate experience was different from that of debaters on the NFL circuits, one need only note the utter absence of any reference in his book to the R.E.M. song, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," widely rumored to be about the habit of policy debaters to "pile bodies on the podium" as they try to inundate their opponents with disadvantages.  That the song was popular during Oppenheimer's high school years, yet he fails to mention it, shows the distance he and his teammates kept between themselves and policy debaters.

This break in our parallel lives did not deter me from reading the rest of this memoir of life as a debater because, despite its idiosyncratic foundations, Wisenheimer is perhaps the most accurate literary portrayal of the debate world in a genre that is strewn with misleading examples, not the least of which are the earnest-though-off-the-mark screenplays for the 1989 Kirk Cameron vehicle Listen to Me and for the later (2005) and better film, Thumbsucker.

Perhaps I am alone among debaters (among those who competed seriously, there really is no such thing as an “ex-debater” or “former debater,” any more than there is an “ex-Marine” or “former Eagle Scout”) who scour the entertainment media for realistic representations of our lives, only to be met with disappointment at every turn. (This is what it was like to be a gay teenager watching TV in the 1970s, hoping that someone like you would show up on the screen. It didn’t happen or, if it did, it was wildly wrong.)

The closest thing in recent years to accomplish what Oppenheimer has done is, perhaps, Gary Alan Fine’s Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture, but that is a densely argued, deeply researched sociological study, with the appropriate detachment that such a book requires.

Wisenheimer, on the other hand, is a breezy, deeply personal reflection about one person’s life and the characters he encounters. It is also a story of how a preternaturally loquacious boy channels his love of language – and, more important, his compulsion to argue – into a suitable, productive direction.

That is another parallel between Oppenheimer’s life and mine. Although he was born the same year that my high school debate career was just taking off, the personalities we displayed in our early childhoods were much the same.

He explains:
From the time I learned my first words, my parents were worried. For one thing, I never stopped talking. Some children never stop moving, other children never go to sleep, but I never stopped talking. All young children go through their inquisitive stages – ‘Why is the water blue, Mommy?’ … ‘But why does it reflect the sky?’ – but mine was extreme. What my parents remember about me as a two-year-old accords perfectly with my own faint memories of that age: the unquenchable desire to say more, to be understood better, and, above all, to have conversations with adults. I found children my age maddeningly slow. I’d ask them a question, and they didn’t know what I meant, or they would take forever to answer. Grownups, by contrast, talked smoothly, without hesitation, and their conversations went on and on.
Yes, yes, yes.

Oppenheimer and I shared an early love of books and, although his parliamentary-style debate in the Connecticut Valley League differed in kind from the Oregon-style policy debate that engaged my classmates and me in the 1970s, we both shared a pre-Internet-age approach to research that required long hours in the library, pawing through card catalogs until eyes bleared and wandering the stacks looking for that perfect quotation. (I don’t recall the last time I saw a reference to the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature in any book -- or anywhere, for that matter. Oppenheimer fondly remembers using it.)

As an example of what a typically competitive high-school debater in the days before the World Wide Web would do to obtain research materials, Oppenheimer recalls preparing for a series of debates on a still-current topic, drug law reform. In this passage, he’s remembering an event in 1988 or so:
After three extemporaneous tournaments in the fall, I was excited to be able to prepare again, as I had for the Star Wars debates in junior high. I began to research drug legalization with a particularly freshman zeal. To gather information on the more relaxed drug laws of Western European countries, I embarked on a project of writing letters to various foreign embassies in Washington. I mailed my requests for information in early December… and by Christmas break I had received generously sized pamphlets describing the Dutch, Swedish, and German legal regimes regarding narcotics. When I presented my haul at the last debate team meeting before break, [the] team co-president, an earthy, hippieish senior girl named B.J. Chisholm, looked at me and said, ‘You wrote letters?’ I detected both admiration and an equal measure of annoyance, as if I were trying too hard.
He wasn’t trying too hard, however.  He was doing what had to be done to succeed.

I have written previously how it was estimated in the 1970s that, each year, a high-school debater competing on the national circuit did the equivalent amount of research to that of a master’s degree student writing a thesis. I suspect that at Marquette High in Milwaukee, where I was a fourth-string player, the top debaters were writing the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. How else could they routinely win national championships year after year after year?

I remember that, as low on the totem pole as I was, I wrote a new affirmative case each week throughout the season my junior year, in an attempt to throw rival teams off the scent of what our best teams were doing. The topic was environmental policy, so one week my partner, sophomore John Pilarski, and I would present a case about mercury pollution. The next week we’d argue endangered species. The following week it would be nuclear energy, ad-nearly-infinitum.

The middle two-thirds of Oppenheimer’s book is a blow-by-blow account of his career as a high school debater, which included several tournaments overseas. (There’s something NFL debaters can seldom add to their lists of accomplishments; score one for the parliamentary competitors.) This is framed by a long prologue about his alienation as a child and a short epilogue about college.

Oppenheimer applied to two universities, Harvard and Yale, and – for him – chose correctly to attend Yale.  Yale’s debate team, like those of most other Ivy League schools, is firmly in the parliamentary model. The Yale Political Union is a manifestation of that.

At Harvard, had he chosen to continue to debate, he would have found himself among the fast-talking, hypothesis-testing, Kritik-embracing geeks whom he rues in comparison to his own milieu of persuasive, oratorical perorators within the parliamentary tradition.

As he puts it,
… beginning in the 1970s debaters – as they call themselves in the large national leagues – changed [the style] to something hardly recognizable as debate: in order to cram in as many different arguments as possible, policy debaters now talk superfast, pausing every few sentences for a deep breath and then starting again at top speed. What’s more, they use jargon, like DA or disad for disadvantage, that makes their debates indecipherable to the nondebater, and even to someone like me, a debater not used to their style.
If you don’t believe this characterization, check out the 2007 documentary film, Resolved.  You’ll find yourself gasping for breath just by listening to its real-life high school debaters.

And if you think Oppenheimer’s complaint is new, check out Michael McGough’s October 10, 1988, article from The New Republic, “Pull It Across Your Flow,” in which he notes that a then “current debate textbook notes that ‘accomplished intercollegiate debaters’—the role models for high school contestants—‘speak at an average rate of nearly 270 words a minute.’”

It may be a matter of taste, this divide between policy debate and the more oratorical parliamentary style, but I’m sorry, in all my years as a competitive debater, coach, and judge, I never heard any First Affirmative begin a speech with “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, honorable judge.” Honorable judge? That just strikes me as pretentious.

I don’t want to leave the reader with a misperception of how much I enjoyed Oppenheimer’s memoir.  Despite the divergences in our debate experiences, I found Wisenheimer to be a tremendously entertaining book, tender in its recollection of adolescent misery, salutary in its tribute to intellectual pursuits, encouraging in its demonstration of triumph over adversity.

Like James Magruder’s novel, Sugarless, which similarly portrays the individual speaking events side of high school forensics with uncanny accuracy, Mark Oppenheimer’s Wisenheimer is a worthy, if rare, addition to a growing literature about competitive speech.  I’m glad I chanced upon it.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Book Event: Neal Boortz Visits Charlottesville with 'Somebody's Gotta Say It'

On March 21, 2007, at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville, syndicated radio talk-show host Neal Boortz spoke to about 200 fans and signed copies of his then-new book, Somebody's Gotta Say It. Boortz was on the fifth week of a six-week book promotion tour.

Boortz – co-author of the earlier New York Times best-seller The Fair Tax Book -- drew an overflow crowd that night at an event cosponsored by the Virginia Festival of the Book and WINA-AM radio.

Joined on the dais by WINA radio show hosts Jane Foy and Rob Schilling, Boortz entertained the crowd for about 30 minutes with anecdotes and quips before autographing copies of his latest book, Somebody’s Gotta Say It, which is based on the program notes from his daily radio show and addresses a wider range of issues than his earlier book, which dealt only with tax reform.

“Charlottesville,” Boortz began, “is one of the radio markets I’m in that I get unbelievable support, which is amazing because it has to be the bedwetting capital of Virginia.” (The home of the University of Virginia is widely known for its liberal/progressive/socialist populace.)

Joking with former City Councilor Schilling, Boortz said, “All men are born with the same number of hormones; Rob has been using his to grow hair.” Retorted Schilling: “I am a hair libertarian.”

Replying to that in words that would be echoed at the Cato Institute the next day, Boortz suggested that “most people are [libertarian] but they don’t recognize it.”

Moving on to the topics of the day, Boortz proclaimed: “I am a global warming denier. When somebody explains to me how our carbon emissions are causing the ice caps on Mars to melt, I’ll start listening to Al Gore.”

Boortz explained that his new book was started over three years ago, even before The Fair Tax Book (which he wrote with Georgia Congressman John Linder, who has introduced the Fair Tax legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives). As published, he said, “the book is 100,000 words long – pared down from 250,000.” The original manuscript, if it hadn’t been edited, “was going to take 800 pages” (about the same as Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, as it happens).

On another issue – his opposition to the war on drugs – Boortz said that “this is one of the good things about the Libertarian Party and one of the worst things.” It’s one of the good things, he said, because the LP recognizes that “we would save tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars by treating drugs as a public health problem rather than as a law enforcement problem.” It is one of the worst things because, when the average American is confronted with the Libertarian platform, his first response is, “You’re the guys who want to legalize drugs” – as though that was the only principle on the LP’s agenda.

If we ended the war on drugs, Boortz explained, “you wouldn’t have the criminal element. We arrest 800,000 people a year for using or possessing marijuana,” which is safer than cigarettes or alcohol. “There is not one known case,” he continued, “of a death from an overdose of marijuana.”

In addition to these costs, he added, there is the “misery we force on people by denying them access to medicinal marijuana” to reduce the pain and suffering from terminal cancer, for instance.

Commenting on life in Charlottesville, Boortz joked that there should be a sign at the city limits that says: “Entering Charlottesville: Suspend Reality.”

Reality, he said, “doesn’t exist in a university town,” because when school is in session, the town is comprised of “people at the age who know everything and have all the answers.”

Asked how we can get Congress to pass the Fair Tax, Boortz related a story he heard from former Majority Leader John Boehner, who had told John Linder that at 27 townhall meetings in 17 states in the run-up to last year’s election, either the first or second question asked at each meeting was about the Fair Tax. “Across the country,” Boortz said, “we have to get people to hammer the subject” to their legislators, who do not like the Fair Tax because it takes power away from them and returns it to the individual.

Boortz asserted that the Fair Tax is the “most researched piece of legislation ever put before Congress,” and noted that “in order to criticize it, people have to change its terms” by, for instance, saying there should be exemptions or the percentage of the tax should be higher or lower.

The Fair Tax, Boortz said, “is a tax plan not devised by politicians. They’ve had their chance, and they screwed it up.”

Relating a story about a Brazilian politician who wanted to talk to him about the Fair Tax, Boortz warned that some other country “is going to do this [adopt the Fair Tax] and become the world’s number one tax haven, and the United States will have to play catch-up.”

Jane Foy asked Boortz what the most controversial chapter of his book has been, and he answered that it was his complaint that “teachers’ unions are a greater threat to the United States than Islamic terrorists,” which attracted quite a bit of media attention about a month ago.

Boortz went on, however, to talk about his view that “there is no right to vote in this country” – at least no constitutional right to vote in federal elections. There might be a right to vote in state constitutions, but not in the federal constitution, he said. Referring to the members of the Electoral College, Boortz suggested that “the state of Virginia could decide that the 13 best-looking Hooters waitresses in Virginia could be [our presidential] Electors.”

The question, Boortz said, is “who are we going to keep away from the polls.” The answer, he said, is to “limit the vote to people who know what the hell is going on.”

(This article is excerpted and adapted from an earlier blog post published on March 22, 2007, on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts.)
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Event: Brian Doherty Discusses 'Radicals for Capitalism'

At the Cato Institute in Washington on March 22, 2007, author Brian Doherty summarized, in about ten minutes, his 800-page retrospective, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Introduced by executive vice president David Boaz as a former Cato intern, Doherty explained that the genesis of his book came more than ten years ago when he was working at Cato, the result of water-cooler conversations with other interns and with staff members. He noted that “a great sign of how much the libertarian movement has grown,” is that, in the early 1990s, “I was the PR department of the Cato Institute.”

Getting to the substance of his remarks, Doherty explained that “one of the great things about” the story he tells in the book is that it “has a great feminist hook,” in that three of the major intellectual figures of the movement were women: Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand. “We would not have the libertarian movement today,” he said, “without these three women.”

Paterson, Lane, and Rand all inspired Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the first libertarian think tank.

Doherty explained that he “grew up in a world where there was a Libertarian Party and a Cato Institute, but that libertarian world did not exist” for people like Leonard Read. For them, living in the 1930s and 1940s, the libertarian world remained to be created. “The fact is,” Doherty said, “ these people had to forge something new for themselves – and that explains a lot.” Among other things, it explains why so many of the characters described in his book appear to be eccentric, or at least “strong-willed.”

In the early years of the libertarian movement, the movement was mostly about education, teaching people about individual liberty and personal responsibility. It was not until the 1970s, Doherty explained, that “organizations arose that saw the intersection of ideas and politics.” Among these were the Libertarian Party (LP), Cato, the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason magazine, then as now a major journal for the movement).

These organizations brought into public view ideas about limited government that included Social Security reform, school choice, privatization of municipal services, the end to the military draft, and the relegalization of narcotics.

“While we absolutely do not live in a libertarian dream world,” Doherty said, “the world is much improved since the 1940s,” the era explored at the start of his book.

Today we live in a world that his been influenced by such people as Ronald Reagan – who said libertarianism is the heart of conservatism – and Milton Friedman. Still, Doherty admitted, “there is no direct, 100% link between the success of libertarian ideas and the efforts of individual libertarians.” Nonetheless, “even the craziest and most adorable people have had their effects” in creating a world that libertarians aim for, one in which people can do “anything that’s peaceful.”

Responding to Doherty’s remarks was Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and other books. Dionne admitted that “it is indeed true that I once went through what a Catholic would call the ‘libertarian temptation,’ but I turned it back.”

Complimenting Doherty, Dionne said, “This is a really good book, a really important book, a fascinating book.” (This was a sentiment shared by several audience members, who expressed it during the question-and-answer period later in the afternoon.)

“One of the great values of this book,” Dionne said, despite libertarians oft-expressed disdain for tradition, “is that libertarians need to be aware of the rich tradition from which they came.”

Libertarianism, said Dionne, “is the latent and unconscious ideology of millions of Americans,” a position borne out by various public opinion surveys over the years.

Looking back at the high-water mark of the Libertarian Party’s presidential ambitions – the election of 1980, in which LP candidate Ed Clark won nearly one million votes across the country – Dionne offered this analogy: “Ed Clark was to Ronald Reagan what Norman Thomas was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Reagan, he said, “was free-market enough to undercut the momentum of the Libertarian Party.”

Coming back to the present, Dionne suggested that there is now a “crack-up” between libertarians and conservatives because “six years of George W. Bush makes liberals and liberalism look very good” to libertarians.

During the Q&A, economist Arnold Kling asked why libertarian ideas have not “infected” academia, leading to two widely different responses from Doherty and Dionne.

Doherty answered Kling by saying that, thanks to the efforts of the Institute for Humane Studies, resistance to libertarian ideas in the academy is diminishing. Still, he cautioned, “most people, even when exposed to libertarian ideas, do not embrace them.” The bottom line is that “you have to have a revulsion about solving social problems at the point of a gun” in order to be a strong libertarian.

For his part, Dionne said, somewhat ruefully (by his own admission) that “libertarianism has made enormous strides in academia.” He pointed to how the law and economics movement, which did not even exist 30 years ago, has established itself in law schools across the country. He added that, again to his regret, “public choice theory is increasingly powerful in political science.”

Asked why libertarians are still marginalized in the political sphere, Doherty replied by saying that this is not the case, at least not compared to the situation of the 1940s. He mentioned having a recent conversation with a George Mason University student who pointed out to him that “in the world of Facebook, there are hundreds of thousands of young libertarians.” Consequently, Doherty concluded, “I am extremely optimistic about the libertarian future.”

The book forum at the Cato Institute was perhaps unusual in that so many people who are featured in Radicals for Capitalism were present. Obviously some of the influential characters in the book – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Friedrich Hayek – are no longer with us.

But there in the Hayek Auditorium, listening to this brief history lesson, were people like Lee Edwards, who worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign; Don Ernsberger, one of the early Libertarian Party activists; Cato chairman William Niskanen, president Ed Crane, and executive vice president David Boaz; constitutional scholar Randy Barnett; draft-registration resister and citizen-empowerment activist Paul Jacob; and many others among the standing-room-only crowd. How rare it is to be able to have lunch with a book’s index.

(This is excerpted and adapted from an earlier blog post published on March 22, 2007, on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts.)
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Author Interview: Bruce Bytnar Recalls 'A Park Ranger's Life'

National Park rangers are “almost 12 times more likely to be assaulted than a Border Patrol agent,” says retired park ranger Bruce Bytnar.  In fact, he says, they “are by far the most assaulted of all federal law enforcement agents.”

Bytnar should know.  After more than three decades in the profession, serving most of that time on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, he wrote a book called A Park Ranger’s Life:  Thirty-two Years Protecting Our National Parks (Wheatmark, 2009).  During those years, he said, more than 12 rangers were killed in the line of duty.

A resident of Rockbridge County, Bytnar was one of 36 authors present at the second annual “Meet the Authors Book Signing Event” at the Holiday Inn in Charlottesville on November 19.  He graciously answered my questions about A Park Ranger’s Life in a brief interview.


Bears, bad guys, and ghosts
The book, he explained, is based on his experiences “from my career as a park ranger.  It has everything from stories about bears and bad guys [to] lost hikers.  There’s even a ghost story from early in my career from a haunted house I had to work in for two weeks.”

The book also “attempts to show what it’s really like to be a National Park ranger, as well as lots of tips for people about when they come to parks, how they can travel and be in the park safely.”

In the year since it was published, A Park Ranger’s Life “has also been adopted by three universities as required reading for students:  Ohio State University, Northern Arizona University, and Slippery Rock.”  In addition, Bytnar said, five other colleges have added it to recommended reading lists for students of resource protection who aim to become park rangers.

“Part of the reason that the universities have adopted it is the fact that it’s an honest reflection of what it actually is to be a park ranger,” Bytnar explains.  It has “not only the good, fun stories and the successes but also the frustrations, such as dealing with budgets, park managers who don’t really like what you do,” and also something most people don’t think about, negative effects on rangers’ families.

Bytnar began his career in 1975 at Fort McHenry in Baltimore before moving to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, finally settling into a job along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the stability was good for his family.

Three decades of changes
Did Bytnar observe changes over the three decades he was a park ranger?

“Definitely, definitely,” he said, pointing to “lots of changes in the way things were done, changes in visitation patterns, changes in the way management viewed our work.  Lots of things changed,” including the cars and all the equipment that rangers use on the job.

As for the years to come, Bytnar said, “the National Park System has a bright future as long as the American people still stand behind it.”

Americans, he explained, “have to realize what an important treasure it is that we have, and support it” not only financially and by soliciting support from their legislators, “but also by visiting the national parks.”

To complement his book, Bruce Bytnar maintains a blog, also called “A Park Ranger’s Life.”

(An earlier version of this article, in slightly different form, appeared on Examiner.com on November 20, 2010.)

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Four Books to Stuff Into Christmas Stockings

I wish to recommend the four best books that I have read in the past year.  Three are non-fiction, one is fiction.  I regret not having written full-length reviews of these books yet, but I may get around to it eventually.

By far my favorite book of 2010 has been Daniel Okrent's Last Call:  The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.  The title is self-explanatory but completely understates the rich lode of historical matter that Okrent has gathered between the book's covers.  I thought I knew the story of Prohibition, and I was wrong.  So many rich details had slipped my notice over the years, including the seminal work of Wayne B. Wheeler, the pre-eminent lobbyist for Prohibition, who basically invented grass-roots political organizing and direct-mail fundraising years before Marvin Liebman, Richard Viguerie, or MoveOn.org.

Neither did I know how the forces of Prohibition had undermined the Constitution by preventing for a full decade the mandated reapportionment following the 1920 census, because those favoring Prohibition knew that a Congress that more accurately represented cities, suburbs, and recent immigrants would be less inclined to support stiff enforcement of the Volstead Act and would be more inclined to move toward full repeal of the 18th Amendment.  As a result of the manipulation of Wheeler and others, the Congress elected in 1930 represented the same districts as their predecessors did in 1912, a clear violation of the Constitution.

What's more, Okrent did some digging and discovered no evidence for the widely-held belief that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a bootlegger.  Though Kennedy had imported liquor legally at just about the time that repeal seemed inevitable, there simply is no documentary proof that he had imported illegal liquor during Prohibition.  The rumor that the senior Kennedy had been a bootlegger, and had built his family's fortune on that, seems to have begun sometime in the 1950s and, as Okrent points out, if any evidence had existed prior to that date, Kennedy -- who had many enemies in business and politics -- would certainly have been called out on it.

Another book of history that I really enjoyed was Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market:  Ayn Rand and the American Right.  Burns, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a page-turner about the Objectivist philosopher and novelist's life.

That may be hard to believe, since the outlines of Rand's career are so well-known, given previous biographies and memoirs.  Somehow, however, Burns is able to keep the reader's attention.  As I read along through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I know what happens next, but I want to find out how it happens."

Burns was the first outside scholar to be given access to Rand's personal papers and library, and the result of her research is a highly readable yet informative chronicle, not only of Rand's life but of her influence on the American conservative and libertarian movements. 

Over the course of the past eleven or twelve months, I have had at least three opportunities to see Burns speak:  once at the Miller Center, once at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and once at a forum she assembled on the idea of "liberaltarianism," or the cooperation between libertarians and liberals in the public square.  On two occasions, I was able to interview her about Ayn Rand and about her book.

In the world of entertainment, it was my pleasure to see TV's Craig Ferguson perform his stand-up act at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville on October 17.

In anticipation of that show, I read Ferguson's own autobiography, American on Purpose:  The Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.

As the title implies, the story culminates in Ferguson's decision to become an American citizen.  I was actually a bit disappointed that, for all the detail about his life and "adventures" earlier in the book, the section on the naturalization process was thin.  It certainly was not as complete as the reports Ferguson gave about it on The Late, Late Show on CBS while he was going through it.  (That included numerous offers of "honorary citizenship" from state governors, including a then-unknown-outside-Alaska Sarah Palin, whom Ferguson described at the time as something of a "sexy librarian.")

Still, Ferguson's chronicle of his life growing up in a lower-middle-class household near Glasgow in the 1960s and '70s, his love affair with the United States that began upon his first visit here at the age of 13, his early life as a drunk and drug addict, his first attempts at performing (which began with him as the drummer for a punk rock band, leading to a stand-up act as the character "Bing Hitler") that included encounters with other beginners like U2 and Alan Cumming, through his long-term engagement as a regular on The Drew Carey Show and finally, his becoming the best of the late-night talk show hosts (in my opinion, at least).

After Ferguson's performance at the Paramount in Charlottesville, I noticed his tour bus was still parked out back and, curious, I found a cadre of fans standing outside, waiting for the star to emerge.  Sure enough, only a few minutes later, he came out of the stage door and signed a few autographs and posed for a few photographs.  Luckily for me and Steven Latimer, who was with me that night, Craig let us pose with him in the very last shot taken that night.  Naturally, I posted it on Facebook as soon as we got home.  It appears here for the first time outside a social networking context.

As the picture was being snapped, I said to Craig, "You're the smartest host on late-night TV," to which he replied:  "That's like being a tall midget."  Maybe so, but I stand by my statement.

For what it's worth, I also purchased Ferguson's novel, Between the Bridge and the River, on that night at the Paramount.  I have not yet had a chance to read it.

I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless late last year, I simply could not put it down.

It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much:  not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.

Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).

Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now.  His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.

The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band.  People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.

The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it.  For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection.  (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.)  So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.

Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me.  I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager.  It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.

(This review essay is excerpted from a longer blog post at Rick Sincere News & Thoughts on November 28, 2010.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Event: John P. Kaminski at Cato on 'The Quotable Jefferson'

On July 6, 2006, I attended a book forum hosted by the Cato Institute, featuring the editor of a (then) new book from Princeton University Press called The Quotable Jefferson. The editor, John P. Kaminski, is the founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Kaminski’s remarks were followed by a response by Matthew Spalding, director of the Center of American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.  (Spalding is the author, more recently, of We Still Hold These Truths:  Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future.  A short video of Spalding talking about his book can be seen here.)

The panel was moderated by John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government, who wrote the recent book, The Struggle to Limit Government:  A Modern Political History. (I interviewed him about his book for Examiner.com on April 28, 2010.)

Samples pointed out that The Quotable Jefferson is “priced very nicely [listed at $19.95, but $13.57 on Amazon] for such a substantial book.” He described it as the “most comprehensive and authoritative collection of quotations” of Thomas Jefferson.

That should come as no surprise, given the editor’s background and experience. “I have known Mr. Jefferson for a long time,” he said, noting that he once introduced himself to an audience by saying “I’ve been living in the 18th century for the last 35 years.”

Kaminski is involved in a major project to gather together all of the surviving documents related to the ratification of the Constitution, a project that so far has lasted 50 years with a resulting 19 volumes, and he predicted it will continue for at least another 15 years (for a total of 65) before it is completed. There are 100,000 documents from the ratification period, he said, which need to be gathered, transcribed, and catalogued. It is taking 65 years to document “what the Framers did in four months [of drafting the Constitution] and the American people did in nine months [of debating ratification state-by-state],” he said.

Thomas Jefferson, Kaminski said, is among the “most widely quoted, most admired, and most condemned” figures of U.S. history. “Jefferson runs hot and cold throughout our history,” he remarked, and “today both spigots are on.” The reason for this bipolar approach is that Jefferson, unlike some of his contemporaries (such as James Madison) wrote down just about every thought he had, leading to contradictions, extremes, and positions easily taken out of context.

Another aspect of Jefferson’s writing, besides its voluminousness, is that he “is more interested in style and how a sentence sounds” than he is in adhering to convention or the accepted rules of grammar. Consequently, his writing has a poetic quality that creates a certain agelessness.

Kaminski asserted that “the single most important sentence in the English language was written by Jefferson,” the one beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Those words, he said, and what Jefferson did with the rest of the Declaration of Independence, were the consummation of taking all of what had been written in the 18th century about political theory and governance – some 23,000 pamphlets in the English-speaking world, and some 5,000 pamphlets in North America in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Jefferson condensed all that thought into a few hundred words that come down to us as the Declaration. (And, I might add, how many of us can name, much less quote, any of those 23,000 pamphlets?)

The words, Kaminski said, are “Jefferson’s legacy.” He was an imperfect human being, as were all the Framers (and as are politicians today), but the words are what last and what have had the greatest impact, regardless of what one might think about Jefferson’s personal life or his personal decisions about, for instance, his slaveholding.

Closing his initial remarks, Kaminski told the 65 or so audience members gathered in Cato’s Hayek Auditorium that what he hopes “you’ll get from the book is the joy and pleasure and sense of edification from someone who writes poetically.”

In his response, Matthew Spalding acknowledged that his expertise lies more with the life and thought of George Washington than it does with Jefferson, but he said that “it is always a good thing to focus on the American Founders” and that “biography is in many ways the best way to teach history.”

Spalding said that, “when it comes to his political thinking, we have to grapple with the fact that Jefferson is the most difficult founder to deal with.” There is often a distraction, he said, stemming from Jefferson’s hyperbolically revolutionary rhetoric and his flirtations with the excesses of the French Revolution.

(Later in the program, Professor Kaminski mentioned the “Adam and Eve letter,” in which Jefferson suggested that democracy would be served well if, in every country, revolution killed off everyone except for one pair, an “Adam and Eve,” to restart society from scratch. That text reads, as recorded in The Quotable Jefferson on page 120:
[Speaking of the French Revolution] In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, & shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it is now. --To William Short, Philadelphia, January 3, 1793.)
Spalding explained that various figures of the revolutionary and constitutional eras influenced and balanced each other. Madison, in particular, served as a moderating influence on Jefferson, stressing the importance of constitutional structures as opposed to revolutionary rhetoric. Spalding posed the question: “Does Jeffersonianism need to have Madisonianism or Hamiltonianism or even Washingtonianism?” He pointed out that, by putting the rivals Jefferson and Hamilton in his Cabinet, George Washington forced the two of them to work out their differences, moderated through constitutional structures. Both Hamilton and Jefferson, he said, needed to moderate the extremes of their rhetoric.

Summarizing Jefferson’s contribution to the “American argument,” Spalding pointed to the three things listed on Jefferson’s tombstone:

First, individual rights: The most important sentence for the American experiment, he said, begins with “All men are created equal.” Here is where the contradictions come in, because that “evocation of rights has to be squared with Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.” Yet those words became the “promissory note” that was redeemed through abolition and eventually through the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

Second, religious liberty: Jefferson and Madison, Spalding said, were the most vigilant of the Founders when it came to protection of religious liberty, which they recognized as the “cornerstone of every other liberty.”

Third, education: Spalding cited three components of Jefferson’s views of education – that there should be universal education across the board, at all levels, that there should be an emphasis on civic education, including teaching about rights and democracy, and that education includes higher education, concretized in Jefferson’s founding of University of Virginia. In all cases, Jefferson felt that education was a responsibility of government, that government should provide public education.

Spalding argued that, up until the Civil War, the centerpiece of American historiography was George Washington. After the Civil War, as Washington lost some luster, there was a greater emphasis – a greater debate – about other Founders, most especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Later leaders, such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, would invoke Jefferson in promoting their own policies. In the process of this Progressive use of Jefferson, however, the focus on rights and rights rhetoric was lost. Consequently, the recovery of the principle of rights is central to the recovery of limited government.

During the question and answer period, Spalding noted how remarkable it is that, in the United States, political debate almost always turns on what the Founders might say about this or that issue. That is why, he said in response to a question about “false quotations” attributed to Jefferson and others, people are willing to make things up and put them in the mouths (or pen) of Jefferson or Tocqueville or other respected writers of that earlier era.

Cato’s executive vice president, David Boaz, asked, “What does it mean to be a conservative in a country founded in a liberal revolution?” Spalding replied that “it means conserving the liberal principles of the founding, principles about rights that are moored in human nature and moderated by constitutionalism.” He pointed out that the American conservative defends the “modern Enlightenment” as exemplified by Adam Smith, not the “radical Enlightenment” of Rousseau, Hegel, and later German philosophers.

Since the end of the forum, I have had an opportunity to leaf through The Quotable Jefferson, which looks to be an excellent reference book, owing in no small part to its extensive and detailed index, which runs to 38 pages, and a listing of all of Jefferson’s correspondents and brief descriptions of each (itself 17 pages).

The quotations are divided into categories, such as “Agriculture,” “Food and Drink,” “Freedom and Liberty,” “Life’s Difficulties,” “Slavery,” and “Women.” There are special chapters with Jefferson’s descriptions of other Founders, the Founders’ descriptions of Jefferson, and Jefferson’s descriptions of himself. John Kaminski has provided a succinct introduction that sets the context and chronology for the quotations.

Any writer who uses other, more general collections of quotations as a ready reference will find this book just as useful, and libertarian writers may find it even more useful than Bartlett's.

All in all, I’m glad I made the trip from Charlottesville to Washington for the event – more glad, I suppose, than Mr. Jefferson ever was when faced with the same journey.

(This post is excerpted and adapted from an earlier blog post, published originally on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts on July 6, 2006.)

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Author Interview: Earl Dudley Chronicles a Life from Prisoner to Professor

Having had a childhood that virtually parallels the story of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 movie, Empire of the Sun, retired UVA law professor Earl C. Dudley, Jr., begins his memoir, An Interested Life, with the Japanese bombing of the Philippines that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“My mother and I were injured in the first Japanese bombing of the Philippine Islands on December 8, 1941,” he told me in a recent interview.  “With my parents, I was interned in the Japanese internment camps for a little over three years in the Philippines, and we were rescued by a very dramatic operation of the 11th Airborne Division on February 23, 1945.”

Dudley was one of more than 30 local and regional writers at a “Meet the Author” book signing at the Holiday Inn in Charlottesville on November 19.


‘My parents were starving themselves’
“I was only 4 when the war was over,” Dudley explained, “so I have little independent memory of my own, but I have no memory of having had an unhappy childhood.  My life was sheltered.  My parents were starving themselves to feed me.”

He recalled that his father, “who was about 6 feet tall and normally weighed about 175 or 180 pounds, weighed about 120 pounds when the war was over.  It was an experience for the adults that involved a tremendous amount of deprivation and unpleasantness.”

Yet, he remembers that, “as a child, I had the full attention of my parents.  They were prisoners and so they focused their attention on me and they starved themselves to feed me. So I don’t think I had an unhappy childhood.”

After spending one’s earliest years in a prisoner of war camp, anything after that must pale in comparison.  Yet Dudley’s life was peppered with poignant moments.

John F. Kennedy Assassination
In the early 1960s, he was working as a journalist for UPI in New York.  As it happens, he was on the editor's desk when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

He writes in his memoir about that day:

“The news of the assassination hit me, as it did almost everyone, like a punch to the solar plexus.  But I had no time to grieve.  I was running an international news wire with the biggest story in many years.  Given the magnitude and pace of events, there was no time for a transition to a new editor, so I remained in the [editor’s] slot for most of the next shift as well….  I simply operated on instinct and somehow made it through the crisis without panicking.”

End of segregation
Dudley grew up in the South during the last years of enforced segregation.  He was in the ninth grade in Northern Virginia, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and, consequently, unconstitutional in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.

“I was the only kid that I ever found at my Herndon High School in 1954 whose parents told him the Supreme Court got it right,” he said.

Working for civil rights, he continued, “was always a priority of mine.  I organized a demonstration at the White House in the spring of 1960 in support of the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, and then in later years, I did a fair amount of pro bono work for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington.”

Studying at the University of Virginia Law School drew Dudley to Charlottesville and, after graduating, he clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren during the Supreme Court’s 1967-68 term.

Police pat-downs
Dudley clerked during the year the Court decided Terry v. Ohio, a case that may have relevance in the current controversy about Transportation Security Administration searches at U.S. airports.

Dudley said that case was probably the best-known of that Supreme Court term, adding that he worked on it, explaining that it “dealt with the question of police pat-downs on the street, with less than probable cause to arrest. It was very controversial case at the time and has spawned a huge, whole jurisprudence of its own.”

After two decades working for various Washington law firms, Dudley returned to Charlottesville to teach.

His classes included “mostly litigation-related courses, because that’s what I had done in practice.  I taught evidence, civil procedure, criminal procedure, criminal law, constitutional law, and trial advocacy.”

Dudley retired from teaching in 2008, and now enjoys quietude and travel with his wife of more than 50 years, Louise, and his family, seven decades after a tumultuous beginning to what he calls “an interested life.”

(This article originally appeared in slightly different form on Examiner.com on Sunday, November 21, 2010.)

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Author Interview: Mary Murphy Reflects on the Legacy of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about growing up amidst racism and intolerance in the Depression-era Deep South.

Independent filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy has produced a documentary called Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, which was screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville on November 7.

Murphy has also written a companion book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the interviews she did for the film with fans of the novel (and the subsequent 1962 Oscar-winning film) such as Oprah Winfrey, historian Diane McWhorter, novelists Scott Turow and Wally Lamb, veteran television journalist Tom Brokaw, and people from Harper Lee’s life, including her elder sister, 99-year-old Alice Lee. (Harper Lee herself has not granted an interview since 1964.)

Why the Novel Remains Popular
To Kill a Mockingbird remains as popular as it is, particularly among teachers who assign it to their classes year after year, because the novel “novel is about so many things, and it means so many different things to different people,” Murphy told me after her film was screened.

“It has indelible characters,” she said, and “it has a social message without being preachy.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is “about race, of course,” Murphy added, but it’s also “about class. It’s about justice; it’s about tolerance. It’s also about childhood; it’s about love; it’s about loneliness -- and it’s an incredible novel of suspense.”

Impact on Civil Rights
The book also had an impact on the civil rights movement, which gained steam shortly after its publication and especially after the movie version, starring Gregory Peck as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, who is assigned to defend a black man against false charges of raping a white woman.

Murphy explained that just as an earlier “successful model,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “gave abolitionists fuel in the Civil War, many people have said that To Kill a Mockingbird provided important ammunition in the civil rights movement.”

The fact that the book “was written by a young white woman from the Deep South,” Murphy continued, did a lot “in ways that no treatise, no newspaper editorial, no politician could do.”

The reason, she said, was that To Kill a Mockingbird “was art, it was popular, it was told from the point of view of a child, and it allowed white Southerners and Northerners and everyone else to question the system and the way it was.”

While the documentary film, Hey, Boo, does not yet have a distributor, Murphy hopes that it may be broadcast as early as January or February 2011, perhaps as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS, with the possibility that it will be available on DVD or in theatres sometime after it airs on television. Scout, Atticus & Boo, Murphy’s companion book, has been published by HarperCollins and is available in bookstores and through Amazon.com and other on-line booksellers.

(An earlier and slightly different version of this article appeared on Examiner.com on November 15, 2010.)

Note:  Video of Mary Murphy's post-screening discussion of Hey, Boo with members of the audience at the 2010 Virginia Film Festival can be seen on YouTube and on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

'The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols,' by Ian Bradley

Christmas is unique among holidays in the music we associate with it.

Just think: What other holidays bring to mind so many, and so many different, songs? Outside of church services, Easter has “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and not much else. Patriotic commemorations like Independence Day or Memorial Day might be celebrated with “The Star Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful,” but those and other anthems are not identified with a single holiday. Diehard union organizers might sing “The Internationale” on Labor Day, but even that would be a rarity.

Christmas, on the other hand, has hundreds of songs – some spiritual, some secular, some a strange blend of both – dedicated to it. We hear them on the radio (almost every media market now has at least one FM station that plays Christmas music around the clock starting around Thanksgiving and ending only on December 26), in shops, on street corners, in school pageants, from wandering carolers, and in our own homes.

Christmas songs, it seems, are among the few – besides TV theme songs – that Americans have etched in our memories with the capability of singing by heart, without written notes or lyrics. We know them so well, we think they have been around forever.

Strangely enough, some of those “ancient” songs are newer than we might imagine. Not only that, but many of them became popular despite hardheaded resistance from religious leaders – and I am not talking about opposition to “Rudolph” or “Frosty,” but to deeply spiritual, Bible- or tradition-based hymns that today are more likely to be sung at Midnight Mass than heard on the radio or at the shopping mall. From 1700 until 1782, for instance, only one Christmas hymn – “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” – was permitted to be sung during Anglican church services; in 1782, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” made the acceptable song list twice as long.

The stories of these, and 98 other, familiar (and some not-so-familiar) Christmas songs are told by church historian Ian Bradley in The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols, published in 2006 as a companion to his The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns (Continuum, 2005). Many would be surprised to learn from Bradley that hymn-singing by congregations during church services is, historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon. What’s more, “carols” (which used to be songs accompanied by dancing for almost any season of the year, including Lent, Easter, summer, and Christmastime) were particularly looked down upon by the official church.

Bradley explains:
“Yet although it now seems almost unthinkable to celebrate (or survive) the festive season without them, carols originally had nothing to do with Christmas, nor even with Christianity. They were among the many pagan customs taken over by the medieval church which used them initially as much in the celebration of Easter as of Christmas. The subsequent development of the carol as a distinctive genre standing somewhere between the hymn, the folksong and the sacred ballad and having as its subject matter the story and significance of Jesus’ birth serves as an interesting pointer to several major currents in religious, social and cultural history of the last five hundred years. Born out of late medieval humanism, carols were suppressed by Puritan zealots after the Reformation, partially reinstated at the Restoration, sung by Dissenters and radicals to the distaste of the established churches in the eighteenth century, rediscovered and reinvented by Victorian antiquarians and romantics, and re-written in the late twentieth century to fit the demand for social realism and political correctness. As well as reflecting the mood of their times, some of our best-loved carols also contain coded comments on contemporary events, including, perhaps, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and the revolutions across Europe in 1848.”
Rereading that paragraph from the first two pages of Bradley’s book after having read the whole thing, it becomes remarkably clear that those 205 words serve as a near-complete summation of the 420 pages of text that follow. Bradley has put in a nutshell the whole history of carol-writing and carol-singing. In subsequent chapters, however, he highlights the origins of dozens of carols, some lost in the mists of ancient history, some by composers and lyricists still living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He offers tidbits of trivia and corrections of misconceptions that deepen our textural appreciation of much-beloved songs of the season.

In the latter category, misconceptions, for instance, the liner notes of many Christmas CDs attribute the words of “Away in a Manger” to Martin Luther. That’s historically unfounded. The first printed record of “Away in the Manger” was when verses one and two were published in Philadelphia in 1885 in the Little Children’s Book for Schools. Verse three was published seven years later in a book called Vineyard Songs. “Away in the Manger,” moreover, is sung to different tunes in Britain and in North America.

One of the favorite hymns on both sides of the Atlantic, “Adeste Fideles” (with its English-language counterpart, “O Come All Ye Faithful”) was long thought to date from the early Middle Ages. Not so, Bradley tells us:
“Until the middle of the twentieth century it was widely believed that this great Latin hymn calling the faithful to worship the newborn Christ was the work of the thirteenth-century mystic Bonaventura. However the discovery of a mid-eighteenth-century manuscript in 1946 by Maurice Frost, vicar of Deddington in Oxfordshire and a noted hymnologist, and research over the next three years by his friend Dom John St├ęphan of Buckfast Abbey led both men to conclude that the author of ‘Adeste, fideles’ was John Francis Wade (1711-86).”
Here’s where the story gets even more intriguing. After it was determined that Wade wrote the song sometime in the 1750s – it first appeared in print in England in 1760 – more research led to the discovery of the song’s political overtones. Bradley continues:
“In 1990 Bennett Zon, a historian of music, gave a paper to the Catholic Family History Society in which he speculated that ‘Adeste, fideles’ might even have been written as a coded Jacobite call to arms on the eve of the 1745 rebellion. He pointed out that half-hidden Jacobite imagery, including Scottish thistles and the initials of the Stuart pretenders, often appeared in Wade’s musical transcriptions and manuscripts. Twenty years after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, Wade was still writing ‘Domine salvum fac Regem nostrum Carolum’ rather than ‘Georgium’ for English Catholic congregations to sing.”
Such speculation – and, one must admit, the case remains to be proven – is of a piece with Clare Asquith’s theory of William Shakespeare’s crypto-Catholicism in Shadowplay (PublicAffairs, 2006). Asquith makes a persuasive argument that is based on more than marginalia in a few musical manuscripts, however.

Many of us have heard the touching story about the origins of “Silent Night,” perhaps the most beloved – and certainly the most-translated – of Christmas carols. (Even as I write this, I am hearing Tony Bennett sing it on the radio.) Supposedly mice ate the cables of the church organ and the parish priest and organist huddled together to write, as quickly as possible, a song that could be accompanied by guitar at Midnight Mass.

Well, sort of.

Bradley has done some digging and found out that there’s more legend than fact in that tale, though the song is no less delightful for it.

He notes that “Stille Nacht!” (as he calls it, using the original, German title)
“almost certainly deserves the accolade of the world’s favourite carol. It has been translated into 230 languages. It is often voted No. 1 in surveys of the most popular carols in Britain although it was pipped into second place by ‘In the bleak midwinter’ in the 2005 BBC Songs of Praise poll. A Gallup poll in December 1996 found that 21 per cent of respondents named ‘Silent Night’ as their favourite carol – more than twice as many as voted for the joint runners-up, ‘Away in a manger’ and ‘O come, all ye faithful,’ which each received nine per cent.”
The legend of “Silent Night” is that it was written and performed for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, by musician Franz Gruber and the parish priest, Joseph Mohr.

It turns out, however, that Mohr had written the lyrics, and possibly the music, too, at least two years earlier, while he was still serving at a church in Mariapfarr. “It was there,” Bradley writes, “that he wrote his six-verse carol which is striking in its frequent references to fatherhood and complete absence of references to Mary or motherhood.”

That’s right: in the original German, there is no “round yon virgin.” That line is the invention of John Freeman Young, an Episcopal bishop who gave the song a very free translation in the 1850s, and that is the most familiar translation to come down to us. (Pace Evelyn Waugh, “Episcopal bishop” is not a redundancy, it’s just an Americanism.)

Another tidbit about “Stille Nacht” – it was the subject of what we now call copyright infringement litigation. Bradley continues his story:
“’Stille nacht’ might well have sunk without a trace, alongside hundreds of other Austrian folk carols, had a manuscript copy of it not come into the hands of Josef Strasser, a glove-maker and folk-music enthusiast who had a family singing group in the best ‘Sound of Music’ tradition. The Strasser family performed the piece as a newly discovered Tyrolean folk carol. As a result of a concert they gave in Leipzig in 1832 the carol was published as one of set of four Tyrolean songs. There was no mention of either author or composer in this first printed copy and it was only after recourse to the law that Mohr and Gruber were able to prove their authorship.”
The misidentification of a new carol as old and traditional comes up in another of Bradley’s sketches, this one involving “Calypso Carol” (also known by its first line, “See Him Lying On A Bed Of Straw”), written in London in 1964 by Michael Perry, an Anglican clergyman. Bradley reports that Perry “was amused to tune into the radio one day and hear a BBC announcer describe his work as ‘that traditional folk carol from the West Indies.’”

The number of well-known and well-regarded Christmas carols written by clergymen in the 19th and 20th centuries is quite stunning. During the Victorian era, Christmas celebrations were transformed -- depending on whether one was in the low-church or high-church tradition – from an austere day of prayer and mortification and/or a day of drinking and carousing to a family- and especially child-oriented celebration. Anglican priests, in particular, stepped in to write music appropriate to this new tone. A number of familiar Christmas songs were written also by Catholic priests (or Oxford movement Anglicans who later converted to Rome) and Baptist and Unitarian ministers.

In his introduction, Bradley explains:
“Carols played an important role in the Victorian reinvention of Christmas as a largely domestic festival full of sentimentality and good cheer. A huge number of new carols were written in the mid-nineteenth century, many in a pseudo-traditional style. Even the pioneer socialist William Morris provided a pastiche medieval carol with the refrain ‘The snow in the street and the wind at the door’ … It was the Victorians, rather than Bing Crosby, who invented the concept of the White Christmas, bringing snow into the Nativity story with Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ … and Edward Caswall’s ‘See amid the winter snow.’”
That may be the primary reason for our assumption, ahistorical as it might be, that Christmas songs are older than old, even if they were written within our lifetimes: the composers have made an effort to make them feel ancient, and the artifice works. Is it doubtful that, a century from now, listeners will think “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “The Little Drummer Boy” are relics of the late Middle Ages?

In a way, I guess, they are.

(This review appeared originally, in slightly different form, on Rick Sincere News & Thoughts, December 17, 2009.)