Category Archives: history

The Lady Who Bulldozed Robert Moses … and more!

Robert Moses is one of those figures who are bound to stir up controversy. In the mid-20th century, Moses re-shaped Manhattan and the other boroughs with grand projects. Those grand projects were based on the idea of “city as machine”. Moses wanted to use modern technology to make the machine work better. That meant bulldozing neighborhoods for freeways. Stuff like that. People just had to adjust to the new realities. That was progress, as far as Moses saw it. And he saw himself as a visionary.

These days, this style of urban renewal has gone out of fashion. Instead of Moses as hero, we get his nemesis, Jane Jacobs as hero. And we will soon see this in a film to be released called “”Citizen Jane: Battle for the City“.

The new way of thinking is that people make the city. And treating the city like a big machine damages the human side of city life. We take James Baldwin’s comment, “Urban renewal means negro removal”. a tad more seriously.

I find it a bit odd that we embrace this as doctrine at the same time that we are awash in corporate money in our politics and elect a dude like Donald Trump to be president.  Could it be, as Elizabeth Warren argues, that we need to wake up to the way our political system has become “rigged” so that it cannot and will not deliver for the people?

Clearly, corporate power is at a high point. We want the efficiencies that cost reduction through market exploitation offers and that big corporations deliver. By and large, we are satisfied when we buy a car or shop at a supermarket. As Steve Jobs said in a different context, “it just works”.

At the same time, we may be just beginning to sense that Ayn Rand was full of baloney. Her vision of the rational and selfish heroics — a vision that captivated Alan Greenspan and led him to champion deregulating the financial system — is starting to look out of date. Contrary to Rand’s ideal, humans are not strictly rational. Research confirms that by and large, we are emotional creatures who use reason from time to time. Or as Dan Kahneman put it, we like to think fast (and act on pre-existing beliefs) rather than think slow (and question whether we know what the hell we are doing). Rand’s rational hero is not a slow thinker.

So where will this take us? Good question. It is too early to tell how the 21st century will move on from 20th-century silliness, just as the 20th century moved on from 19th-century silliness and the 19th century moved on from 18th-century silliness and the 18th century moved on from 17th-century silliness. But move on, we will.

Stay tuned.

Partying with Charlotte Bronté

We start off this brief story with a word about William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in 1811.

In his early adulthood, Thackeray was a bit of a ne’er do well who squandered his family fortune. After he married (in 1836), he began to write satirical works for magazines (most famously Punch) because he needed the money to support his growing family. This lifestyle suited him. and he grew famous by satirizing society figures, especially in his serialized novel, Vanity Fair (begun in 1846).  A victorian Truman Capote? Well, not quite. But you get the idea. BTW; he coined the modern use of the word “snob”. and he loathed Irish Catholics. And BTW, Thackeray was tall for his day (standing around 6 foot 3 inches).

Enter Charlotte Bronté. Ms Bronté was an outlier. As a child, she did not thrive in the real world. Indeed, if she and her siblings thrived at all, it was through their sharing stories of fantasy worlds that they created. None of them would enjoy a long life.

As an adult, Charlotte Bronté did the unthinkable. She published poetry and novels (albeit under the curious pseudonym Currer Bell). Worse still, the novels revealed an amazing amount of female passion.  Women had passions?  Who knew? Jane Eyre, Bronté’s most famous work, was her second effort and was published in1847.  BTW, Charlotte Bronté was tiny (under five foot tall).

Both Thackeray and Bronté became well-known literary figures. And they were acquainted. But what an odd pair! Thackeray’s daughter, Anne Isabelle (who would later become a literary figure in her own right), describes a visit to Thackeray by Brontê this way.

… two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. … The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. … Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess … the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all … after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him … long afterwards … Mrs Procter asked me if I knew what had happened. … It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life … the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club

Which of the two was more eccentric? I would not hazard a guess. And yet, Bronté was the more controversial, especially (as you can see from the above) because of her lack of social graces.  In victorian times women were expected to please. Men were given more leeway.  Borish as men might be, they could return to their clubs to act out their inner silliness.

And here the story takes another turn. Another victorian lady, Elizabeth Gaskell also knew Charlotte Bronté. Like Bronté, Gaskell was a writer.  Gaskell, however, played the victorian game of being female like a pro. She knew how far she could go and she went just that far and no farther.  From the Guardian

Above all, Gaskell understood the value of domesticity, or at least the appearance of it, to the female writer: for all that it was suffocating and demeaning, it was also a shield.

In other words, unlike Bronté, Gaskell was full of “enjoyments”. Despite their differences, Gaskell was enamored of Bronté. Not in a sexual way, but in a conversational way. The two

… walked together for hours, and “like the moors”, Mrs Gaskell felt, “our talk might be extended in any direction without getting to the end of any subject”.

How different than Brontê’s ill-fated visit to Thackeray!

It is not a huge surprise that upon her untimely death at the age of  38, Bronté would be slighted in the press. Gaskell would have none of it and immediately wrote a highly flattering biography. Unfortunately, there were a few problems. From the above Guardian article

Here are some reasons to hate Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë: it is moralistic and stultifying; it flattens Brontë’s brilliantly transgressive nature and confines her to a saccharine version of Victorian female victimhood. It is inaccurate, overemotional and, at times, libellous towards those she accused of attacking her good friend. You might also criticise Gaskell’s motivations: driven by opportunistic ambition to feed, vulture-like, on the carcass of Brontë’s reputation, rather than a true desire to investigate or memorialise.

Strong words! In this light, it is easy to dismiss Gaskell as lightweight. Not to be taken seriously. And yet, thee is something to praise here. Gaskell and Bronté dared to live as themselves – women writers – at a time when women were expected to assume and play out a  much more restricted and highly artificial role. .One can understand why Gaskell would use all of her wiles, even if she would distort the facts, to defend her dear friend, with whom she shared such deep affections.  Even in our more enlightened times, women sticking up for one another against a male dominated society remains controversial in some circles. The courage to speak out deserves at least some respect.

And if you think about it, of course, Bronté would have been leery of Thackeray.  He was interested in society more than the individual. Perhaps that is why we think him as being hopelessly old-fashioned.

Lincoln was into Federal Spending on Infrastructure

As you might know, good old Abe was the first republican president. He is most known for keeping the union together in the civil war. And the reason why Lincoln wanted to do that is largely forgotten.

Lincoln was above all a pragmatic guy. He had practical reasons why the union needed to be kept together. He understood that the only way forward was to enlarge the pool of people who could build and share in the growing prosperity of the nation. Slavery — and the plantation style that nurtured it — held this back. Developing better infrastructure pushed it forward.

After Lincoln, the idea of public spending to secure public goods was largely accepted by both major parties. And that is why America is so rich in public goods.

But that is under threat. Marina Whitman makes the argument that we should get beyond the current privatization craze and think big again!

The Day After Richard III Lost His Crown

At a certain moment in the afternoon of  August 22, 1485, King Richard III saw that things were falling apart. His army should have been mauling that of his adversary, the upstart Henry Tudor. After all, they outnumbered their opponents and they were charging downhill. But they were getting pushed back, and some fighters were ignominiously sneaking away from the fight.

Richard decided to roll the dice one last time with a wild horseback charge in full armor aimed directly at young Henry. He came roaring down the hill with a small retinue and he came close to killing Henry. But he was unhorsed and then killed on the battlefield. There was no thought of showing any mercy.

It was a historic moment that Churchill described this way

(It) may be taken as closing a long chapter in English history. Though risings and conspiracies continued throughout the next reign the strife of the Red and White Rose had in the main come to an end.  Neither won. A solution was reached in which the survivors of both causes could be reconciled. The marriage of Richmond with the adaptable Princess Elizabeth produced the Tudor line, which both Yorkists and Lancastrians had a share The revengeful ghosts of two generations were laid to rest for ever. Richard’s death also ended the Plantagenet line. For over three hundred years, this strong race of warriors and statesmen kings, whose gifts and vices were on the highest scale, whose sense of authority and Empire had been persistently maintained, now vanished from the fortunes of the island. The Plantagenets and the proud, exclusive nobility which their system evolved had torn themselves to pieces. The heads of most of the noble houses had been cut off, and their branches extirpated to the second and third generations. An oligarchy whose passions, loyalties and crimes had for long written English history was subdued. Sprigs of female or bastard lines made disputable contacts with a departed age. As Coeur de Lion said of his house, “From the Devil we sprang and to the Devil we shall go. “

The reference to the Devil is apt. To exert one’s will in order to gain and wield power at all costs is the Devil’s work. And it was what kingship was all about. Gaining and holding power was a winner take all game.

have we moved on from that line of thought? My answer would be that some have and some have not.

What do you think?

Was the United States formed by States of People?

This might seem like a somewhat arcane topic. But it was a very hot topic back in the 1780’s. James Wilson of Pennsylvania was one of the more prominent proponents that it was formed by the people.

Image result for James Wilson

In his view, it was the people who declared their independence. And it was the declaration that formed the basis to transfer power from the crown to a new entity to be governed by the people. Wilson, btw, was one of the most sophisticated lawyers of his day and was a signer of the declaration of independence.

So what is the big deal? It is a very big deal. If sovereignty was created by the states, the states might conceivably take back what they had conferred. If it was created by the people, a state declaration of secession would be less legally sound.

Lincoln understood this and made it a central argument for resisting the secession of the southern states. They were trying to do something that they did not have the power to do.  Wilson’s and then Lincoln’s view that the declaration of independence, rather than the constitution, was the core founding document also formed the basis for asserting that indeed, all men are created equal. That idea appears nowhere in the original constitution.

BTW. w see a parallel issue arising now in Europe. Brexit is possible only because Great Britain conferred sovereignty to Europe, not the British people directly.  The EU exists only if its member states want it to continue.

We get a new look at the debate of the 1780’s after the discovery of a new parchment manuscript of the declaration of independence that was found in the UK. It was likely created by Wilson to be sent to Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond. Lennox was known as the “radical Duke”. for his anti-colonial stance support for the American revolution, as well as reconciliation with Ireland.

Image result for Charles Lennox Duke of Richmond

Wilson (most likely Wilson, in any event) rearranged the signatures to the declaration so that they names are no longer organized by state.

Not Your Usual Workday

It happened during renovations at St. Mary at Lambeth.

… Lifting the flagstones (to an entranceway), contractors found the entrance to a passageway with a staircase going down into the darkness. They attached a cellphone to a long stick and filmed the brick-lined vault. They were shocked to discover it was crammed from floor to ceiling with lead coffins, 30 of them. One of the coffins, they noted, had a red and gold pointed hat perched upon it, the mitre of an Archbishop.

There, they found not one, but five missing archbishops!

Image result for archbishops St. Mary at Lambeth

Hmmm … I was not aware that they had gone missing!

A Potted History of the Post War British Bon Vivant

The Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 and marked the end of the Napoleonic era. Winston Churchill was born in 1874, nearly 60 years later. He would go on to lead Britain in the great war from 1940 to 1945. You might think of Churchill’s life as spanning the great arc of the British empire that ended over 70 years ago.

I mention these times spans to make a point. We are now roughly the same amount of time away from the start of the post-war era as young Churchill was from Waterloo. Using 30 years to mark a generation, we are a bit over 6 generations removed from Waterloo and just over 2 generations removed from the end of the war.

It is no surprise, therefore, that we are still affected by the post-war period. In a sense, we are still “in it” without realizing that we are in something. What do I mean? I Let’s take a cultural idea to see how it has evolved from the 19th century to the post-war era and the present – that of the “bon vivant”.

The bon vivant is

a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink

The phrase seems to have first come into vogue in late 17th century France. It made its way into English, and by the 20th century suggested two things – being “refined” (well versed in the pleasures of the world) and being easily tempted to pleasure (being experienced in indulging and perhaps over-indulging).

So what pleasures?  A prominent example of the bon vivant of the 19th century is Oscar Wilde (he died in 1900). Do you need evidence= How about these quips

  • I can resist anything except temptation.
  • It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating
  • ‘I put all my genius into my life. I put only my talents into my works.
  • I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best

How could he be anything other than a bon vivant? But I would call Wilde a bon vivant of the old school. I say that because Wilde associated this lifestyle with the aristocracy. or at least the educated and prosperous middle class of his time and place.

One was a bon vivant IN society. This need to be “in” society made Wilde’s eventual expulsion from society so painful for him. It destroyed him. BTW, Churchill — who was 20 years younger than Wilde — certainly was a bon vivant of this sort as well. He could not imagine a better life than the one that he had IN society. So as a young man, experiencing great adventure in India, and Egypt, he had a strong urge to write back TO society about what he saw and did.

And what is the main pleasure? Food and drink were important then as now. But excellent conversation also ranks very high. Especially conversation that triggered deeply appreciated relationships. Put another way, the bon vivant life was in being someone in relation to society. That belonging gave special flavor to the various things one might enjoy.

The post-war era brought a different sense to this idea. Evelyn Waugh captures the change in his novel, Brideshead Revisited, which came out in 1945. The pleasures that made society “worth it” have been debauched. A certain rudeness has set in. And the bon vivants of the prior era (like Charles Ryder) have to make the best of it in a new, rather barbaric world.  An exaggerated picture? Of course! But you get the idea. Something has changed and Waugh did not like it at all.

The question arose, where would folks find a renewed sense of the good life? How would one aspire to be a bon vivant in 1946? We might keep in mind that food rationing in Britain was first imposed in 1940 and was not lifted until 1954 – fourteen long years of privation.

This may explain why the food books of Elizabeth David (her first came out in 1950) were so popular. David was fiercely bon vivant and she wanted to write about it.  Her books are called “cookbooks” but in fact, they are much more. They are homilies to the way food should be experienced if one expected to live the good life.

Here she is as a young lady

Image result for Elizabeth David

David was quite a character

Born to an upper-class family, she rebelled against social norms of the day. She studied art in Paris, became an actress, and ran off with a married man with whom she sailed in a small boat to Italy, where their boat was confiscated. They were nearly trapped by the German invasion of Greece, in 1940 but escaped to Egypt, where they parted. She then worked for the British government, running a library in Cairo. While there she married, but the marriage was not long-lived.

The key event in David’s life was meeting the writer Norman Douglas in 1940.  This excerpt from the same Wikipedia bio explains

(David and her husband) halted at Marseille and then, for more than six months, at Antibes, where David met and became greatly influenced by the ageing writer Norman Douglas, about whom she later wrote extensively. He inspired her love of the Mediterranean, encouraged her interest in good food, and taught her to “search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate

David may have been a character, but Douglas was by far the more eccentric of the two – part of his mystique was how he stayed “one step ahead of the law”.. They had one thing in common – their values were ferociously bon vivant – not for society, but despite society. They would live well — contra mundum!

What does a bon vivant contra mundum lifestyle look like? One traveled to remote places where things are better and you are better too. in part you are better because you are no longer bothered by the bores and snobs and whatnot whom you left behind.

Gerald Durrell’s book “My Family and Other Animals” captures this lifestyle brilliantly.

Image result for my family and other animals

From today’s Guardian

When My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956 it was as if someone had flung back the curtains, thrown up the windows and let in a stream of bright light. British readers, having only in recent years torn up their ration books, were transfixed by the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s account of his biophiliac childhood on prewar Corfu in the bosom of his eccentric family. Here was the comic opera version of Elizabeth David’s wildly popular Mediterranean cookbooks – the same colours, textures and sand-between-the-toes lyricism but with an added helping of wacky local characters, naughty fauna and ribald – “Rabelaisian” was the word the Durrells liked to use about themselves – humour.

As the article points out, the story remains popular today, as evidenced by the recent British TV series, The Durrell’s.  It matters not that the real lifestyle of the Durrells took place, shall we say, on a considerably lower level. Go to the Guardian article if you want to learn more about that. The image of how life could be better – how one could become a bon vivant,  contra mundum — is what matters and we love it still!

We forget, however, that while Elizabeth David is a cult figure now among foodies, she might not have had the same appeal in an earlier time. And 100 years from now, folks may have some difficulty understanding why someone would pay a  huge sum to buy her used kitchen table and set of knives. Don’t believe me? Then explain to me the reason why fops and dandies were so at odds in Regency London?

Gotcha! Errr … at least I think I gotcha.