Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Magnificent Catastrophe," by Edward Larson

Ambitious people don't always come off too well in literature, and "A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign" shows that our hallowed founding fathers were no exception.

The "Founding Fathers" are usually presented as an archetype of monolithic cohesion; high-minded patriots, with a nascent American polity's well-being the driving force behind their every action.

There is a wistful, almost universal, sentiment that says, “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”

But this book establishes that they were monolithic only in their desire for independence from England, and thereafter took radically different positions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Larson's portrayal of names as revered as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the not-so-revered, Aaron Burr or Thomas Cotesworth Pinckney, leaves hardly a hair of difference between the high- and low-minded amongst them.

These gentlemen were, in the end, politicians. And like all specimens of that species, they craved power and stepped on people to get it.

Alexander Hamilton comes off particularly bad, or good, depending on your politics.

As a member of the "high Federalist" faction, which ruled before the presidential election covered here, Larson marks him for a pro-British, almost monarchical, presence on the American political scene. A guy who managed to finagle his own standing army out of the Federalist majority and was known as “General Hamilton.”

And he wasn’t the only founder with aristocratic tendencies.

Larson writes that the aforementioned Pinckney, “fought the Revolution to preserve what he, as a South Carolina patrician, viewed as the traditional rights of Englishmen, which for him included the God-given right to enslave Africans -- a right that prewar legal developments in Britain appeared to threaten.”

"Liberty or Death!" indeed.

It comes as quite a shock, in fact, that beacons such as Hamilton, John Adams, and other Federalists in power at the time had a strong aversion to, well, democracy.

They didn't like it, feared it, figured it for a precursor to the mobs, massacres, and guillotines that were all the rage in France at the time.

In fact, they made it a practice to tar Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party (not THAT Republican Party) as "Jacobins," after the unruliest faction of the tumultuous French political scene. Much the way today's Republicans go on about the Democrats being "socialists."

There is, perhaps, something calming in all of this. A vote of confidence for those who shrug at today's Washington shenanigans, confident that our Republic shall survive this, too.

The debate so marvelously detailed here traces the pedigrees of our current political divide.

It may come as a surprise, for those who went into paroxysms over the Bush administration’s scant deference to the rule of law, that such behavior has roots in the guy gracing our ten dollar bill.

Concerned that changes in Maryland’s election law would deliver the presidency to Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton wrote a fellow Federalist, “I am aware of strong objections to the measure, but if it be true, as I suppose, that our opponents aim at revolution and employ all means to secure success, the contest must be unequal if we not only refrain from unconstitutional and criminal measures, but even from such as may offend against the routine of strict decorum.”

In blog-ese, Hamilton is saying, “If we don’t act unconstitutionally or criminally, and risk offending everyone’s sensibilities, we’ll lose the election.”

Al Hamilton, meet Karl Rove.

This book makes clear that today’s rabid partisanship is hardly a new phenomenon.

As the complex election of 18000 is being resolved, things in Washington are at fever pitch. Members of the warring parties no longer socialize as they did up in Philadelphia and Massachusetts Federalist Harrison Gray Otis writes his wife to say, “I have concluded to go to no more balls. I do not enjoy myself with these people.”

Seeking to forge some kind of bipartisan sentiment, the victorious Jefferson is obligated to point out that, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Sound familiar?

Well, the founders reacted in much the same way their legislative offspring do today, and they didn’t need Fox News or the Internet to slime far and wide.

Messenger on horseback was sufficient to spreading a rumor that the mostly forgotten Pinckney, a frequent and viable presidential candidate in those days, had gone to England in search of four mistresses for sharing with John Adams, who quipped in response: “If this be true, General Pinckney has kept all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”

There isn’t enough of such stuff in “Magnificent Catastrophe.” It's a dense, if worthwhile read.

That’s not Larson’s fault. The people he’s researching did what they did and said what they said, and the business of resolving the dangerous partisan rift was indeed a grim one.

In fact, “Magnificent Catastrophe,” suffers from its almost exclusive focus on the inside ball associated with the party politics that followed the death of George Washington who preferred that grand and national coalitions conduct the country’s business.

Readers may yearn for a wider portrait of America, such as that rendered in the account of John Adams’ time on the hustings, when an agrarian, English-styled nation filled with country villages surfaces, if only too briefly.

“Magnificent Catastrophe” doesn't quite live up to its grandiose title. The founding fathers’ low-brow dealings are anything but magnificent, and the catastrophe was ultimately averted.

But it is a revelatory document detailing the way presidents were chosen in the nation’s early days, and dissecting the numbers, myriad votes, and concomitant conniving employed to affect them, in a tense political season that might have doomed the country.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Just Kids," Patti Smith

"Just Kids" is just another Jersey-factory-girl-runs-to-New York-and-hooks-up-with-bisexual-art-pornographer-on-her-way-to-rock 'n roll-stardom story.

It details Patti Smith's evolution from tentative neophyte to rock-and-roll poetess, woven through with her unique relationship to Robert Mapplethorpe, a triumphant artist whose own untimely ending, alas, makes for engaging literature.

The place is lower Manhattan. The time-period is the mid-1960s and 1970s when Mapplethorpe and Smith are, age-wise, a "beat behind" the reigning princes and princesses of rock's golden age.

As such, she is influenced artistically by the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Janice Joplin for whom she pens poetic cycles while absorbing political pointers from Jean-Luc Goddard's "One-Plus-One."

The life-as-artist anecdotes have a familiar ring: hunger, rejection, perseverance, and a healthy amount of name dropping.

Smith has affairs with Jim Carroll, Sam Sheppard and a guy from Blue Oyster Cult. Allen Ginsberg mistakes her for a pretty boy in the Automat, and Gregory Corso imparts stern advice to the budding scribe inside her.

They are revealing tales that highlight Smith's achievement as survivor of an era peopled with fascinating characters demolished by addictions and carelessness.

"Just Kids" is the portrait of a New York City not completely subsumed into the grid of overpriced realty, before the Internet, where artistic ambition had a geographic component and required settling into some dump on the mighty Isle.

Here is "art" before its subsequent elevation to bourgeois respectability. To an artist of today's saturated market, the idea that you could install yourself at the Chelsea Hotel and initiate apprenticeships with living legends seems, with the benefit of hindsight, a no-brainer.

One can only assume that, in those days, choosing art meant the painful burden of rejection from loved ones and dangerous uncertainty on the path ahead.

So, as time capsule, "Just Kids" is just great.

But autobiographies should tell us something we don't know about somebody. They can be intriguing when it comes to artists; usually reinvented characters very mindful of their own brands, of what they show and don't show the world.

And who does Patti Smith tell us who she is/was?

For starters, because it's really how she got it going, Patti Smith is/was American as apple pie; thrifty, industrious, entrepreneurial, and self-involved, her Rimbaud-inspired disdain and punk rock posture notwithstanding.

Here Smith describes her efforts in the opening stanzas of the couple's bohemian idyll:

"I scoured secondhand stores for books to sell. I had a good eye, scouting rare children's books and signed first editions for a few dollars and reselling them for much more. The turnover on a pristine copy of 'Love and Mr. Lewisham' inscribed by H.G. Wells covered rent and subway fares for a week."

And she is a fashionista of the first rank.

Long before Patti Smith was confident enough to confront an imposing poetry world, she parsed a personal vocabulary in clothing ensembles that, 30 years on, she remembers down to the last accessory.

Here she describes a successful attempt at sartorially seducing Television guitar-star Tom Verlaine to work with her band:

"I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand: black ballet flaps, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat, and a violet parasol, and entered Cinemabilia where he worked part time."

And she is materialistic. Not flat-screen TV materialistic, for sure, but tightly tied to and moved by objects tactile and tangible.

Before joining Mapplethorpe for a photography shoot she, "laid a cloth on the floor, placing the fragile white dress Robert had given me, my white ballet shoes, Indian ankle bells, silk ribbons, and the family Bible, and tied it all in a bundle."

During the shoot she is stricken with anxiety that is eased by Mapplethorpe's knowing voice and a change into dungarees, boots, an old black sweatshirt.

Smith interprets this evolution as an expression of certain ideas she and the photographer have discussed prior. Ideas about the artist seeking contact with the gods, but returning to the world for the purpose of making things.

Her conclusion to the section does not surprise: "I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our hand-made world, saying, 'I choose Earth.'"

As for Mapplethorpe, especially if you're a foot soldier in the art world, he seems a rather common phenomenon: ambitious and single-minded in his craving for fame. Patti's lazy percolation into what she would ultimately become makes for an infinitely more interesting yarn.
One gets the feeling he might agree. In one of the most charming parts of the book he tells her through a cloud of cigarette smoke, "Patti, you got famous before me."

She dubs Mapplethorpe her "knight," but this reader cared thanks to the love she invested in him.

Mapplethorpe, of course, was an artist and all the writing about art in the world cannot replace the actual experience of it. Perhaps he is shortchanged by the autobiographical form; try as his muse does to honor him.

Although we rarely accuse anybody of being too old to rock 'n roll anymore, writing remains a mature person's game. So it was Smith's good fortune to be a writer first, a musician later, and a writer now, because she brings lit-passion and a high level of skill to "Just Kids."

This is especially true towards the end of the book. In earlier stanzas she is more a chronicler of the famous and idiosyncratic characters surrounding. When the poetess describes the artistic vision, purpose, and goals upon which she ultimately settles, the narrative assumes the force of that direction:

"We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it was losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone."

Pretty grandiose stuff.

But she is, in "Just Kids," nothing if not a dramatist scripting the play of her own life, decorating it with universal symbols, inserting Patti Smith into art history's larger arc.

There are persons and outlets, many in the very cultural current Smith helped generate, who find such self-positioning both cloying and pretentious.

Not highwayscribery.

Worms squirm in the mud and we are all welcome to join them. Walking with the deities is the tougher task and should be worthy of our admiration.