Tom Wolfe Essay–The Director’s Cut

I wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal on Tom Wolfe, who died on May 14 at the age of 88. Then I followed up with a piece on his style for the Lingua Franca blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a mashup of the two pieces, with some additional thoughts.

One of the best passages in Tom Wolfe’s best book, The Right Stuff (1979), starts out:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot . . . coming over the intercom . . . with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring) . . . the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’ . . . the voice that tells you [. . .]: ‘Now, folks, uh . . . this is the captain . . . ummmm . . . We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not . . . uh . . . lockin’ into position when we lower ’em . . . Now . . . I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about—I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right’ . . . faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is worth going into—still, it may amuse you . . .

The rendition of the “drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ ”—the style of speech even pilots from Massachusetts or Oregon universally affect, Wolfe says—goes on for another few hundred words, too long to quote here; I commend it to your attention. The voice, Wolfe ultimately tells us, originated from someone who picked it up in the mountains of West Virginia. Starting in the late 1940s, it drifted “into all phases of American aviation.” “It was the drawl,” he writes, “of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

Like Yeager, Wolfe had an infectious voice. He revived or introduced into mainstream prose style the use of italics, ellipses, exclamation points, apostrophe (or direct address), the historical present tense, onomatopoeia, kooky spelling and repeated capitalized portentous phrases (“the Right Stuff,” “the Me Decade,” “Masters of the Universe”).  More generally, he wrote with by a verve and playfulness and wit that rammed a virtual alarm clock in the ear of what he once called the country’s “somnambulistic totem newspapers.” His style was pretty much the opposite of Ernest Hemingway’s, but the two men—who both were reporters in their youth—were the most influential American stylists of the 20th century. Every journalist with literary ambitions who came of age from the late 1960s through the ’80s either imitated Wolfe, imitated his imitators or had to make the deliberate decision to reject the Wolfean approach and find another way.

Take it from me; I was one of them.

Wolfe’s style was as original as it was influential, but innovations always have some ancestor or ancestors, however indirect.  The Wolfean literary forebears that come to mind, with one exception, were novelists—not surprising, considering that Wolfe championed journalism as a literary form.

John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was published to a great deal of attention in 1960, just as Wolfe was embarking on his experimentation and innovation. He surely noted that it was composed in the present tense—in recent times a commonplace, in 1960 a novelty. Wolfe also had to have been intimately familiar with the work of J.D. Salinger, a near-Hemingway-level influence on young American writers in the ’50s. Salinger was very big on italics, especially in dialogue, where he characteristically applied them to just one syllable of a word. An exchange from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

“Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr–”

“I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to just pack everything and leave.”

Next, Norman Mailer, who ventured into non-fiction in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. His coverage of the 1960 presidential conventions for Esquire not only had some of the stylistic much-ness of Wolfe but also—as in this bit from the piece on the Democrats’ Los Angeles—dealt with the same West Coast hot-rod ethos he would explore just a couple of years later:

And in this land of the pretty-pretty, the virility is in the barbarisms, the vulgarities, it is in the huge billboards, the screamers of the neon lighting, the shouting farm-utensil colors of the gas stations and monster drugstores, it is in the swing of the sports cars, hot rods, convertibles, Los Angeles is a city to drive in, the boulevards are wide, the traffic is nervous and fast, the radio stations play bouncing, blooping, rippling tunes, one digs the pop in a pop tune, no one of character would make love by it but the sound is good for swinging a car, electronic guitars and Hawaiian harps.

It may or may not have been a matter of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence, but four decades later, Wolfe fomented a public feud with Updike, Mailer, and a third “literary” novelist, John Irving, whom he dubbed “My Three Stooges.”

The one nonliterary influence I’ll mention is advertising, which was probably the main bastion of enthusiasm in 1950s and early-’60s America; its characteristic utterance was the shout, juiced with real or implied exclamation points and italics. Raid Kills Bugs Dead! and all that. Mainstream culture had nothing but disdain for it. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in painting and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in architecture, Wolfe appropriated a debased discourse and used it for his own ironic devices. Come to think of it, the Right Stuff and other Wolfean catchphrases may also have been influenced by Madison Avenue, which loves a good slogan.

Moving on, here’s the opening to Wolfe’s 1964 piece “The Girl of the Year”:

Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter face brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast, old, moldering, cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvelous!

Now tell me that Wolfe could have come up with that sentence if James Joyce — the most original literary stylist of the century? — hadn’t written Ulysses.

Finally, here’s another passage from “The Girl of the Year,” which was a profile of “It Girl” Baby Jane Holzer:

That girl on the aisle, Baby Jane, is a fabulous girl. She comprehends what the Rolling Stones mean. Any columnist in New York could tell them who she is … a celebrity of New York’s new era of Wog Hip … Baby Jane Holzer. Jane Holzer in Vogue, Jane Holzer in Life, Jane Holzer in Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Jane Holzer in the world of High Camp, Jane Holzer at the rock and roll, Jane Holzer is … well, how can you put it into words? Jane Holzer is This Year’s Girl, at least, the New Celebrity, none of your old idea of sexpots, prima donnas, romantic tragediennes, she is the girl who knows … The Stones. …

In the deliberate repetition (the Greeks’ word for it was anaphora), in the rhetorical question, in the laser-eyed view of money and its baleful effects, in the long sentences and the voice dripping with irony, I spy the influence of the master of such set pieces, Charles Dickens. From Our Mutual Friend:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.

Wolfe’s long career (his final book, The Kingdom of Speech, was published in 2016) had five overlapping but distinct stages. He started out on the academic track, entering the doctoral program in American Studies at Yale after graduating from Washington and Lee University in his native Virginia. His dissertation was turned down; one reader’s report (preserved in the Tom Wolfe Papers at the New York Public Library) observed that Wolfe had “written a piece of polemical journalism, in which he offers too many assertions that are not supported by evidence.” His second try was accepted but by that time he had already taken the hint and become a reporter, finally fetching up at the New York Herald Tribune in the early ’60s. The Trib was known as a writer’s paper, and while there Wolfe made forays beyond totemic somnambulism.

But he didn’t come into his own till the third phase of his career commenced, with a 1963 article for Esquire about the culture of custom cars. He called it “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . .” At the time there wasn’t a name for what he and other innovators, like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin, were doing. Wolfe found one in a long-forgotten phrase from 19th-century England: The New Journalism. Like so many of his other coinages, it stuck.

To me the best Wolfe was Wolfe the reporter, on display in several collections published in the ’60s and ’70s (the first had the foreshortened title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (the book narrates a cross-country trip of writer Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters) and in The Right Stuff. Everything came together: his verbal skills, his satirical sensibility, his eye for what he called “status details,” his American Studies set pieces (he was big on applying the theories of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen to the go-go ’60s) and, maybe least recognized, his shoe-leather reporting rigor. Wolfe was able to construct amazing interior monologues from the points of view of his characters because he spent so much time listening to and just watching them.

The accuracy of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” was challenged pretty much from the day it came out in 1965. Wolfe, by contrast, rarely faced the charge of getting anything significant wrong.

(After my essay containing the previous paragraph was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a circulation of some 2.3 million people, I was contacted by two people who demurred. My first correspondent commented, “As a pilot, Yeager was nuthin’ compared to say Bob Hoover, or Barney Olds.” He went on: “But the drawl thing … that is just about right.” The second, more serious, charge was that the members of a group of surfers and beachcombers Wolfe wrote about in “The Pump House Gang,” originally published in 1965, “made up stories about their antics at the Pump House by Windansea Beach in La Jolla, which Wolfe assumed were true.” Here’s an article that gets into some of the whys and wherefores.)

Wolfe’s fourth act was as a polemical essayist, starting with The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), about modern art and architecture, respectively. They got attention in their time, and they pricked some art-criticism balloons that were ripe for pricking. But today, over all, they have a bit of the feel of a cranky uncle’s Grand Theory rant.

In his final guise, Wolfe became a novelist, aiming—in the tradition of Balzac, Zola and Dickens—to write narratively propulsive works that peeked into all layers of society. His four works of fiction were all best-sellers, and copies of the thick mass-market paperback editions still abound at any book sale you might happen to attend. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the novels sold 50 times as many copies, collectively, as his books of journalism.

But the public and I differ on this matter. While The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) was a tour de force—not coincidentally set in New York City, his adoptive home town, whose streets he had pounded for so many years—I wasn’t able to get through the three novels that followed it. The satire sometimes turned to meanness, and Wolfe’s racial perspective was an obstacle. He didn’t depict people of color (a term he surely loathed) as villains so much as irredeemably different and other. This myopia was apparent from the start of his career. His phrase “Wog Hip,” in the Baby Jane Holzer profile, uses a term as offensive in Britain as the n-word is in the U.S.  In the same piece, he says Mick Jagger sings “with the voice of a bull Negro.” Describing the Playboy mansion in the introduction to an early collection, he said it had “huge black guards or major-domos inside. Nubian slaves, I kept saying to myself. One of the blacks led me up a grand staircase . . .”  One of the blacks. I could go on. In a Facebook comment, the critic Gene Seymour, who is African-American, said, “Even when Wolfe did his own version of ‘bending over backwards’ to conceive African American characters who weren’t (in his view) annoying or over-the-top stereotypes, as in A Man In Full, they came across as stiff and blank.”

More generally, without the tennis net of fact, Wolfe had to rely on his imagination, which struck me as ever less Dickensian as the years went on.

The later Wolfe, it seems to me, became something of a comfortable prisoner of his early innovations. He had a bead on white Christian American men, but that, it became increasingly apparent, left out a lot of the world. Status, on which he was fixated, accounted for some human behavior, but  it’s only one of many factors that account for how we think and behave. And his voice! So fresh and right for a certain time and place! But that time ended and, not unlike Hemingway, Wolfe was locked into a style that sometimes seemed like self-parody or—worse—old-fashioned.

But the journalism he wrote in his prime will last. I have no doubt that a hundred years from now, someone who has never heard of Chuck Yeager, who only knows about airplanes from books, will read about that “little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right.” And give a chuckle of recognition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming: The System

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Illustration by Jackie Ferrentino

Here’s the opening of a piece I recently wrote for the New York Times Review section.

I had to buy two items at CVS — a bottle of mouthwash for me and some red yeast rice pills for my wife. I plucked the Listermint from the shelf, took it to the cashier and gave her my phone number and a $10 bill. The 38 and 1/16th-inch-long receipt had just what I was hoping for: a coupon for $5 off a purchase of $15 or more, expiration date three days later.

I headed straight for the vitamin section, where the economy-size house-brand red yeast rice was on sale — buy one for $22.99, get one free. I brought my two containers to the same cashier, who took the coupon and unjudgingly charged me $17.99. But wait, there’s more. I’d get the equivalent of 2 percent of that price back in CVS Rewards bonuses for future purchases, and 1.75 percent in cash via my credit card rewards program, a total of 67 more cents to my name.

Am I pitiful or what? Don’t answer that question.

Or at least don’t answer it till you hear me out. My CVS behavior is just one data point suggesting that I’m the precise person for whom the marketing strategy of “gamification” is intended. That is, saving some money on vitamin supplements is nice, but that’s not really what brought me to the drugstore. I was there for the buzz, the shots of happy I got when the cash register spit out a receipt the length of a 4-year-old. It’s all in the game.

You can read the rest of the article here.

 

The Loneliness of Watching ‘Last Man on Earth’

I wrote a piece for Slate about my occasional feeling that I am the last man, or woman, on earth watching the Fox comedy Last Man on Earth–and about the fact that, despite its low ratings, the show keeps getting renewed.

Three days after my article appeared, the show was cancelled. However, some reports suggest that Hulu may pick it up for a final season.

In any case, if you’re interested in why I like the show, here’s my piece:

Sometimes I feel I am the last man on Earth watching The Last Man on Earth. The ratings of Fox’s post-apocalyptic sitcom, which aired the last episode of its fourth season on Sunday, started out low and then descended. This season it averaged about 1.97 million viewers per airing, worse than every single show on any network other than the CW, with the exception of its Fox stablemates Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Exorcist.

Nor—in contrast to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and the CW bottom feeders Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—does Last Man generate accolades or buzz. When it debuted in 2015, it got positive notices (which prompted me to start watching in the first place) and four Emmy nominations but no wins. The following year there was one nomination, for creator and star Will Forte; last year, nothing. Metacritic tallied up the best-shows-of-2017 lists of 125 publications, websites, and critics, from Adweek to Yahoo. Last Man appeared on exactly zero of them. Personally, since the early reviews, I haven’t encountered a single mention of the show, among critics, on social media, or in real life. (Admittedly, I don’t get out much.)

Adding to my sense of aloneness is the way I watch the showDVRing it on Sunday, then watching it later in the week, when everyone else in my house has gone to sleep.

The show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original.

Why have I and my 2 million-odd fellow Last Man fans kept watching? Speaking for myself, because the show is smart, goofy, attractively filmed, crammed with satisfying Easter eggs and callbacks, absolutely nonaspirational, superbly acted, sneak-up-on-you funny, and, most important, almost aggressively original. Sure, you could say the premise and story are a cross between Lost, The Walking Dead, and Gilligan’s Island. But that leaves out the tone and feel of the show, which are like nothing I’ve ever seen.

In the premiere, we meet Phil Miller (Forte), who has somehow survived a virus that killed everyone else on the planet. Reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, his only company is a collection of sports balls on which he’s Sharpie’d faces, although he does consider striking up a relationship with a mannequin he finds in a shop window. Phil is all savage, hold the noble. The first line we hear him say is, “Dear God. Apologies for all the recent masturbation.” He amuses himself by bowling with fish tanks and demolishing cars. (Phil is watermelon-dropping David Letterman let loose on a vacant world.) He floats in a kiddie pool, sipping the mega-Margarita he’s filled it with, and when he needs to relieve himself, heads over to a bigger pool and squats over the hole he’s cut out in the diving board.

At the end of the first episode, Phil despairs and decides to kill himself, only to see a plume of smoke in the air. He follows it and discovers another survivor, Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). Much of the rest of the first season is animated by a running joke contradicting the title: Phil encounters other “last men,” and women, at the rate of roughly one every other week, usually in a closing cliffhanger.

A signal feature of the show, from the start, were what-crazy-twist-will-the-writers-come-up-with-this-time? storylines. Selected recaps from the show’s Wiki page give a bit of the flavor:

• “Phil parks in a handicapped parking spot, much to Carol’s dismay, but more arguing leads to Phil ramming the truck through the store entrance.”
• “Phil then heads to a jeweler with Carol for the rings, and gives her a hammer as a wedding gift to choose the ring she wants.”
• “The next day, the group continues to call Tandy by his embarrassing nickname [Skidmark], much to Tandy’s dismay, which then leads Tandy to show them his skidmark free underwear.” (In the second season, because another, more admirable guy named Phil has arrived, the group votes that Forte’s character has to be called by his middle name, Tandy.)
• “Tandy confides in Carol that Pat [a paranoid psychopath who intermittently bedevils the group] is really dead. They stage a fake fight between Tandy and a fake foam dummy of Pat.”

I have to admit I was touch and go about continuing with Last Man after Season 1. Forte’s all-in performance was amazing, but gross-out gags only go so far, and I was mainly unamused by the sex farce that took up a lot of the airtime, especially as it came partly at the expense of the marvelous Schaal: Phil’s lust for glamorous new arrivals (January Jones, Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen) is constricted by his commitment to unglamorous Carol, made when he thought she was the only woman left alive. But I’d made enough of an investment, and was curious enough about what would happen next, to overcome my misgivings. I’m glad I did: the characters, relationships, and themes have gotten progressively deeper and more interesting.

And the wackiness remains. A running gag of the past three season is that A-listers like Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Jack Black, Laura Dern, and Martin Short turn up, only to quickly die, in ever more bizarre ways. An arc this season featured Fred Armisen, whose brilliant turn as a Hannibal Lecter–like serial killer/cannibal should win him a supporting-actor Emmy. (It won’t.) Ultimately, he was blown up by an exploding Rubik’s Cube that had been introduced early in the season and that, like Chekhov’s famous pistol, was destined to go off. (Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, and Chris Elliott have also made multiepisode appearances, though they haven’t been killed off. Yet.)

But mortality isn’t a gag for Last Man—or at least isn’t just a gag. Two regulars have died over the show’s run, and the emotion characters and audience feel is real, though no This Is Us–ean tears are ever, ever jerked. Indeed, maybe the most impressive thing about the show is that, while maintaining the element of wigged-out farce, it’s added layers of seriousness. The alcoholism of Gail (Steenburgen) and the firearms-obsessed psychosis of Melissa (Jones) are always on or just below the surface; all the other characters (with the exception of Coleman’s steady and dependable Erica) have their own particular mishegoss. More so than the buzzier but less original and funny The Good Place, the show has come to address issues of what it means to be alive, to be a good person, to commit to someone. (The other things the series have in common are similar go-to euphemisms. Last Man: “Oh, farts.” Good Place: “Oh, fork.”)

Spoiler alert: Sunday night’s season ender went big with its cliffhanger, as the group encountered more last people, and not just one or two. Will Fox renew the show so we can find out who they are? The ratings would appear to be just too low, but TV analysts give it a just better than even chance to stay alive. Why? Last Man does a bit better with the key 18–49 demographic than with the population at large. More important, it’s owned by the network it airs on, which means revenue for the company when the show has wrapped enough episodes to make a syndication deal, a number it would likely achieve in Season 5.

The decision should come down in the next couple of weeks. If it turns out to be negative, even though I’ve never met another Last Man fan, I’m pretty sure I can predict what the reaction of the entire hardy band will be.

Oh, farts.

Revisiting “Inappropriate”

[Note. This essay was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 1999. Now seems like a good time to revisit it. I’ve resisted the urge to tinker with it, other than to add a Google Ngram Viewer chart at the end.–BY]

When Bill Clinton, by way of apology, acknowledged last fall that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a White House intern, he was appropriating a term that has come to seem appropriate for a remarkably wide range of situations and purposes.

A quick Lexis-Nexis search for “inappropriate” yielded 198 hits in major newspapers just in the month of January 1999 (for the same month three years earlier there were 108). Scanning some of the headlines that came up offers a strikingly wide range of uses for the word:

“Survey finds pharmacies giving customers inappropriate advice” (The Herald, Glasgow).

“Niece as flower girl would be inappropriate in gay wedding” (Houston Post).

“Holmgren regrets outburst. Coach admits cursing at fan was inappropriate” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

“Enemas are inappropriate, dangerous as a weight-loss tool” (Chicago Sun-Times).

“Blindfold use in school ruled inappropriate” (South China Morning Post).

The meaning of the word in all of these uses is evident (respectively, “incorrect,” “in poor taste,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” and “barbaric”). But “inappropriate” has become such a catchall term that sometimes it’s impossible to figure out what it’s supposed to signify. A New York Times article on last year’s Thanksgiving Day parade reported, “Earlier this year, five balloons were permanently retired because they were too big, too awkward or, in the case of Cat in the Hat, inappropriate, as a Macy’s spokesman put it.” You want to run that by me again?

I hasten to point out that “inappropriate” is no piece of neologistic slang. The Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition “not appropriate; unsuitable to the particular case; unfitting, improper,” cites its first appearance in the early 19th century and quotes a use in Dickens’s Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.'” Its antonym and root, appropriate (“specially fitted or suitable, proper”), has an even longer pedigree, dating at least to 1546, when an edition of The Regiment of Lyfe referred to “remedies … appropriate to every membre throughout the body.”

Both words proceeded quietly along until the middle of this century, when they began to receive wide use in specific fields. Medical discourse acquired the habit of referring to procedures as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for a particular patient — terminology that had a nicely scientific, non-judgmental feel. The new discipline of psychotherapy, in its many and varied forms, adopted this lingo to describe not the treatment but the patient (or client), no doubt in large part because it liked the idea of being a branch of medicine rather than religion. And so such phrases as “inappropriate affect” began to be heard in consulting rooms throughout the land. I asked some friends about their first awareness of “inappropriate,” and one of them told me by e-mail about working in a child-psychology clinic in the 1970s: “We were practically required to describe behavior as inappropriate, when what we really meant was (a) annoying, (b) obnoxious, or (c) crazy.”

But what propelled the words into the national consciousness, I believe, was E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, which extolled the virtues of “appropriate” — that is, small-scale — technology. A journal called Appropriate Technology began publication in 1974; my university library has six publications just from the years 1977 to 1979 whose titles begin with that phrase.

So the words were there for the taking, and they got taken — especially, as I started out by saying, “inappropriate.” While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted.

That understanding of the term is so widely shared that an explanation is often seen as unnecessary. I found a citation for a 1998 article from The Journal of the American Dental Association called “The Inappropriate Patient.” This struck me as a fascinating concept. I looked up the abstract, only to find that the article is about dentists’ legal obligations when they or their employees are sexually harassed by patients. Similarly, a 1994 article from Nursing, called “Grieving Spouse: Inappropriate Behavior,” deals exclusively with what to do when the husband of a terminally ill patient makes what used to be called advances. (“It is recommended that the nurse should first redirect the man’s energies by asking him how he’s coping with his wife’s illness.”)

A number of reasons plausibly suggest themselves for this word’s ever-increasing popularity. The first is our old friend moral relativism. To call an action “inappropriate” is not to call it wrong, bad, shameful, reprehensible, or evil. To call a video “inappropriate” for a child is not to say that it will warp his or her mind or is an instrument of the devil. Use of the word may also subtly imply that those concepts are themselves inappropriately moralistic — that all behavior and expression are okay only as long as they are performed in the suitable or proper time and place. At first blush, that approach to the world has an appealing, vaguely Zen feel to it. But we live, inescapably, in a Judeo-Christian culture. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said on the floor of the Senate, referring to Clinton’s antics, “Such behavior is not just inappropriate — it is immoral.”

A related explanation for the popularity of this and other euphemisms is personal or institutional timidity when making judgments about other people’s behavior. The perpetrator of “inappropriate” actions is pretty much off the hook, and so is not likely to take any actions — verbal, legal, or physical — against his or her accuser. Another friend, who used to work in college residence halls, told me that “inappropriate” was a “standard word in disciplinary letters I wrote or when talking with a student when you wanted to say ‘You screwed up’ in a nice way. No matter how minor (being caught with a beer) or major (trying to plug the exhaust pipe of my car), the behavior was not appropriate for a residence setting.”

Conversely, someone — say, the President — who admits to inappropriate behavior isn’t admitting to anything too terribly awful. It’s classic rhetoric for a non-apology apology.

Perhaps the most important explanation of the word is simple linguistic laziness: “Inappropriate” is such an easy way to avoid saying what you mean. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed resolution to censure the President began: “Whereas William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States, engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee in the White House, which was shameless, reckless and indefensible. …” Shameless, reckless, and indefensible are great words! Feinstein’s prose would have been so much stronger (and maybe her resolution would have passed) if she had scuttled the old and tired “inappropriate relationship” and let them shine.

The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication. Yet another friend recalls that when she was an intern at a high school in New York City, “I had to tell an Episcopal priest that his daughter had called the Spanish teacher a son of a bitch. I chose not to be explicit and explained to him that his daughter had used inappropriate language. He responded by asking, ‘What the hell do you mean by inappropriate?'”

Google Ngram Viewer chart showing frequency of “inappropriate” in English-language books. (Reliable data only goes through 2000.)

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Is a Lot of ‘Learnings’ a Dangerous Thing?

The other day I got an email from a colleague, Richard Gordon, which opened up:

I officially surrender on this one: “trainings” and “learnings” and other plural gerunds. …

Even academic papers now include the plural of gerunds:

“Expanding the Pipeline: Key Learnings on Retaining Underrepresented Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science  from CRA Bulletin”

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the same thing had come up on a Facebook thread about new words and phrases. A friend commented “the absolute worst is ‘Learnings.’ My brain needs a reboot every time I hear it, as in, ‘What were the learnings from the meeting?’”

I had to confess, learnings was a new one on me, but I quickly learned it’s definitely not a new one. While learning is traditionally a noncount or mass noun meaning the act of acquiring new knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of it as a count noun meaning “a lesson, instruction,” with citations dating back to Piers Plowman in 1362 and including this line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:  “The king … Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.” That is the final citation, and the definition has a dagger next to it, indicating obsolete status.

But the obsolete status is obsolete. Commenting on the Facebook thread, Mike Pope noted that that very day, the OED had responded to a question on the subject on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.43.29 AM

In fact, the revival of learnings seems to have started before that. This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates a spike in use from about 1920 to 1960.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.25.23 AM

Most of the uses in that period came from the field of education. A 1930 edition of a physical-education journal gave this report of a conference address:

He then made the following points: Learnings in character are subject to the same laws and principles as learnings in the ordinary intellectual fields. … Direct learning, however, will probably be the smallest part of the processes. Therefore concomitant learnings must be as carefully planned. …

Learnings seems to have made its move to the corporate world around the turn of the 21st century and shows no signs of letting up. In a November 14 New York Times Dealbook conference, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said,  “One of the key learnings that I project out to folks — because we all at some point in time could be affected by this — is that you have more time to respond than you think.

The first complaint about learnings I’ve found came in 2003. In 2004 someone wrote this complete blog post: “Attention, Masters of Business Administration of Corporate America: Quit using the word ‘learnings.’ It makes you sound really stupid. The word you really want is ‘lessons.’” More peeving came in 2009.

Currently, the use of the word in academe is robust, to say the least. A Google Scholar search for learnings in 2017 alone yields 5,620 hits. The first four:

  • “Building the capacity of early childhood educators to promote children’s mental health: Learnings from three new programs” –chapter in Health and Well Being in Childhood.
  • “The digital journey: Reflected learnings and emerging challenges” –International Journal of Management.
  • Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
  • “Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –presentation, International Association for Energy Economics.

Was the 2004 blogger right? Does learnings make you sound stupidIt probably depends on the setting. No in a meeting on Madison Avenue, yes in the English department. It’s certainly not an affront against the English language, what with the Shakespeare pedigree and such parallel constructions as teachings, findings, leavings, and readings. Should you, as the blogger said, use lessons instead? I do discern a slight difference in connotation: lessons emphasize the data, person, or persons imparting the information, learnings the person or persons receiving it. Lessons also has a slight punitive feel, as in “learn your lesson.” (Another option is a a slightly less buzzy buzzword, takeaway.)

As for me, I would never use learnings. But that doesn’t mean a hill of beans in this world, as I learned long ago.

How Old Is Gaslighting’?

220px-gaslight-1944The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”

Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.

The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?

Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.

But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:

There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”

Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to  Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:

Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.

I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.

The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”

Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:

Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?…

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.

But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]

(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)

In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.

Cheat Sheet: Identifications and Ages

Among the hardest things for my journalism students to master are the capitalization and punctuation of identifying people, and the punctuation of ages. Here’s a cheat sheet I hand out to them:

The rules—in terms capitalization and commas—are kind of complicated, so let’s take a look at some examples, first with IDs.

1. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama addressed Congress.
2. The president, Barack Obama, addressed Congress.
3. Barack Obama, the president, addressed Congress.
4. The Commencement speaker was billionaire Bill Gates.
5. Bill Gates, a billionaire, spoke at commencement.
6. Bill Gates, the seventh richest man in the world, spoke at commencement.
7. The seventh richest man in the world, Bill Gates, spoke at commencement.
8. The software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Speaking out against the rule was sophomore Ellen Jones.
10. A sophomore, Ellen Jones, said she is against the new rule.
11. Ellen Jones, a sophomore, said she is against the new rule.
WRONG: Ellen Jones, sophomore, is against the new rule.
WRONG: Sophomore, Ellen Jones, is against the new rule.

Here are some rules that hopefully will make sense of the above:

Capitalize identification only right before name, and only if it is an official title (President, Senator), as opposed to a description/characterization (billionaire, software pioneer, sophomore).

If identification is after name, always surround it with commas (as in 3, 5, 6 and 11).

If identification is before name, use comma if this is the only person that fits this description (chairman of Microsoft, seventh richest man in the world), or if the identification starts with the word “A” (as in 10).

Ages (Note: with ages, always use numeral rather than spelling out the word)

1. The winner was Jimmy Smith, a 10-year-old.
2. The winner was 10-year-old Jimmy Smith.
2. The winner was Jimmy Smith, who is 10 years old.

Yagoda’s Rules for Quotes, 2.0

Some years ago, I put together for my journalism classes a guide to the use of quotations. I realized it could use a little revision, so here’s an updated version.

I. The Care and Use of Quotes

1. What Are Quotes and Why Use Them?

A direct quote is the material presented inside of quotation marks. It tells the reader that these are some exact words a speaker said. If (and this is a big if) the source is qualified to speak about the subject, a quote is a good—probably the best—way to get opinionated, funny, emotional, metaphorical, personal, ungrammatical, hyperbolic, and generally colorful language into your story. Quotes also enliven a story by bringing in (metaphorical) voices. Also, editors and readers expect them.

Note: if someone is not qualified to speak on the subject, or if the person says something banal, predictable, boring, clichéd or in any way ignorant, do not use that quote. This is also true if the quote contains merely factual information. (See Paraphrase.)

2. Accuracy of Quotes

The short answer is that if you’re using quotation marks, it’s not permissible to change anything the speaker said, such as including in the quote anything he or she did not say.. However, it’s okay not to include meaningless filler words and sounds like “um” and “you know.” Beyond that, different organizations have different rules and policies on quote fidelity, so when in doubt, consult with your editor.

3. Paraphrases and Indirect Quotes

An indirect quote is a paraphrase or summary of what someone said. It is not surrounded by quotation marks, and therefore you are not indicating that the person used those exact words (though the person may well have done so). Indirect quotes are used to convey purely factual information that would not lose anything if expressed in “journalistic” language.

Poor use of direct quotes: “The university will be closed tomorrow,” Jones said.

Paraphrase is preferable: The university will be closed tomorrow, Jones said.

Or: Jones said the university will be closed tomorrow. Note: no comma after “said.” (You might also notice the absence of word “that” after “said.” Use “that” before an indirect quote if you need it to prevent ambiguity or confusion. )

4. How Long?

In newspaper writing, quotes should be short. It’s the “sound bite idea,” borrowed from radio and TV. That means that quotes should generally be one or two sentences long. To go beyond that, the quote must be really, really good.

Quite often, a mediocre or poor quote can turn into a good quote by losing one or two sentences. (There is absolutely no ethical problem with trimming a quote, as long as you’re not twisting it to mean something other than what the speaker intended.)

5. How Many Quotes?

Quotes are like cayenne pepper or some other strong spice: a little goes a long way, and too much is a disaster. Quotes are very tempting; for one thing, they take up a lot of space. Resist the temptation. The more quotes you use, the worse the story usually is. Rule of thumb: at least twice as many paragraphs should have not have quotes as have them. Put another way, a quote has to earn its way into your story. If a potential quote doesn’t add substantial value, just say no and don’t use it.

6. Quotation Marks, Commas and Periods

In all circumstances (except in the United Kingdom and certain countries that were formerly in the British Empire), commas and periods always go INSIDE quotation marks, never outside. This is also true for titles and “air-quote” style expressions (which should be avoided anyway—see “Dos and Don’ts of Feature Writing.

Wrong: Winning the game was “very lucky”, Brunswick said.

Wrong: His favorite movie is “Inception”.

NEVER use single quotes (‘like this’) except to indicate a quote within a quote.

7. Attribution Verbs

All quotes have to be attributed—that is, you have to say who said them.

For the verb of attribution, almost always use “said.” Other words come off as hokey and forced (“stated,” “asserted,” “gasped,” “smiled,” “quipped,” “remarked,” etc.) or amount to editorializing. “Claimed” implies you doubt the person; “admitted” implies you think he or she is guilty of something. “Asked,” “replied” and “recalled” are okay when appropriate in the context.

Use past tense (“said”), not present (“says”), except in features and magazine stories.

8. Provenance of Quotes.

When readers encounter a direct quote and attribution, they will rightfully assume that the person made that statement in an interview with the writer of the article, i.e., you. If that’s not the case, you have to make that clear. For example, if the quote was previously published (not desirable but sometimes unavoidable), you have to write something like:

“My job is to ask the questions, not get the answers,” Stewart said in a 2008 New York Times interview.

9. E-mail quotes

E-mail is a great resource, especially for obtaining facts. However, if you want to get any nuance or insight from your source, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face or even telephone interviews. If you use a quote from an e-mail exchange, you must make that clear, for example, with an attribution like “said in an e-mail.” For subsequent quotes from that e-mail exchange, it’s okay to merely say “said.”

II. The Mechanics of Quotes

1. Standard form:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. (Or “he said.”)

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard”, Jones said.

2. In quotes of two or more sentences, put attribution after first sentence:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. “It’s mind-boggling. More sentences can follow.”

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. It’s mind-boggling,” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said, “It’s mind-boggling.” (The comma after “said” turns this into a comma splice.)

3. When speaker needs to be identified or described:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” said Alex Jones, a journalism professor.

In this case, the verb goes before the i.d. of speaker, because otherwise the result would be clunky: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Alex Jones, a journalism professor, said. Otherwise, put name or pronoun first and avoid “said Jones” or, especially, “said he.”

In such cases (long description of speaker), attribution can also go before the quote:

Jones, a journalism professor, said, “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Note: uppercase “T” in “That.”

Occasionally, a long or dramatic quote is preceded by a colon rather than a comma, as in:

Smith said: “I deplore everything the president stands for.”

4. Setting up quotes

Quotes almost always have to be “set up” by a sentence in your own words that introduces the idea of the quote without being too bland or too similar to it. Never use a key word from the quote in the setup.

Too similar (and repeats word):
Coach Brett Brown said the 76ers have a long distance to travel in order to be a playoff contender.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Set-up doesn’t do enough:
Coach Brett Brown had some comments about the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Just right (and note use of understatement, which is often effective):
Coach Brett Brown made it clear he wasn’t completely satisfied with the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

5. Multiple quotes

Two quotes can’t come right after each other. Instead they must be separated by material from you, the writer.

Wrong:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a sophomore.

“I love it when the leaves change color,” said sophomore Audrey Martin.

Better:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a freshman.

Sophomore Audrey Martin agreed. “I love it when the leaves change color,” she said.

6. “Orphan” quotes

Every quote has to be attributed, even if it’s clear from the context who said it.

Wrong: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked.”

Right: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked,” he said.

However, a single quote should only be attributed once.

Wrong: “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy, all the time,” she added.

Right. “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy all the time.”

7. Paragraphing

If you are using a relatively long quote, or want to emphasize a short one, it makes sense to give the quote its own paragraph. Make sure to include attribution.

Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work

“It sucked,” he said.

8. Partial quotes

Partial quotes can be as short as one word or as long as a phrase, but are less than a complete clause or sentence. These can be effective, but too many of them create a herky-jerky sensation, so use sparingly (no more than two or three per story), and mainly for vivid words and phrases. They are not preceded by a comma and the first word is lower-casd.

Right: Jones described the proposal as “mind-boggling.”

Wrong: Jones said it was, “mind-boggling.”

9. Quote within a quote

“The guy said to me, ‘Your money or your life,’” Jones recalled. (Hint: people tend to naturally be good storytellers, so when your source says what someone ELSE says, that’s often a sign that this is a good quote.)

10. Attribution in middle of sentence

This should be used only when the end of a sentence is dramatic, surprising, or funny, and only at natural pauses:

Not dramatic enough: “The best holiday of the year,” she said, “is Halloween.”

Not a natural pause: “I did every assignment except,” he said, “for the term paper.”

Good: “I did every assignment,” he said, “except for the term paper.”

11. Brackets and ellipses

Brackets—[ ]—are used within quotes to indicate a word that was not said by the speaker. Even though they’re tempting and commonly used, best practice is never to use them. They are clunky and remove the illusion that we’re hearing the speaker, taking away the quote-ness of a quote.

Almost always, you can tell the reader what you would have put into brackets by taking the time and effort to set up the quote.

Consider how the brackets spoil this quote:

“Arnold [Schwarzenegger] is a wuss,” said Bustamante.

Instead, write something like:

Bustamante made it clear that for him, Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy image is all hype. “Arnold is a wuss,” he said.

Ellipses [ … ] indicate material from a quote has been omitted. Do not use ellipses when quoting from speech. If the material you want to omit is filler, repetitive, or brief, it’s okay to just leave it out.

For example, If in your interview Bustamente said, “Arnold is, you know, a wuss,” your quote should be either the exact words or “Arnold is a wuss,” not, “Arnold is … a wuss.”

However, if the material you want to leave out is a sentence or more, or was uttered at different times, make two separate quotes.

Wrong:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “…We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world.”

Right:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world,” he said later in the interview.

When quoting from written material, brackets and ellipses are okay.

Will Rogers: “Bacons, Beans, and Limousines”

My first book, and in some ways still my favorite, was Will Rogers: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf. 1992). I have since kept up an interest in Rogers (1879-1935), the great Oklahoma-born commentator, humorist, and entertainer. I was please and honored to be asked by the Library of Congress to write an entry about him for their National Recording Registry, a program that “showcases the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage.” Specifically, I was asked to write a short essay about a radio address Rogers gave in 1931. You can listen to it online; the essay is below.

___

In 1931, Americans were beginning to understand that the stock market crash of two years earlier was a harbinger of a deeper, broader slump. Most obviously, the unemployment rate had more than doubled, to more than 13 percent. A sign of the times was the popularity of a relatively unfamiliar word. The word “depression” appeared 651 times in “The New York Times” in 1929, 3,279 times the following year, and 5,974 in 1931.

President Herbert Hoover had come relatively late to a realization that the economy was in a pickle. He had instituted some public works projects that prefigured the New Deal of his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was unwilling to provide federal relief to the unemployed, or to farmers, who were suffering from the effects of a drought and a steep drop in crop prices.

The alternative Hoover promoted was to ask local groups to help out people in their own communities. In August 1931, he created the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR) to assist private and local relief efforts around the country; two months later, he kicked off a $90 million fund-raising campaign with a radio broadcast carried by 150 stations nationwide.

Hoover asked Will Rogers to speak on the program. It was a sensible idea. Born fifty- two years earlier in the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma (he was about one quarter Cherokee), Rogers was probably the most popular and perhaps the most well- respected figure in the country. He had started his career as a rope-spinner on the vaudeville stage. His off-the-cuff wisecracks between tricks had turned into Ziegfeld Follies monologues that were mainly pointed commentaries about politics. (He’d characteristically come out carrying a folded newspaper and open up with the line that would become his motto: “All I know is just what I read in the papers.”) His act had led to a daily newspaper column that, by the time of Hoover’s call, was carried in the “New York Times” and some 400 other newspapers around the country. He also starred in genial comedies for the Fox studio. Two years hence, the country’s motion-picture exhibitors would name him the country’s top box-office attraction, ahead of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.

Hoover knew that Rogers’ observations, while prescient and sometimes barbed, were never mean. That was a big part of why he was so beloved. A New York newspaper perceptively observed that he had “a curious national quality. He gives the impression that the country is filled with such sages, wise with years, young in humor and love of life, shrewd yet gentle. He is what Americans think other Americans are like.”

So it made sense that Hoover would ask Will Rogers to contribute to the broadcast. But it turned out to be a very bad idea. One would have to considerably stretch the point to call Rogers a radical; any sort of militant ideology would violate the geniality that was integral to his on-stage and real-life persona. Yet the unemployment numbers, the spectacle of bread lines in the cities, and the suffering he’d witnessed on a recent drought-relief tour for farmers in the Southwest had awakened the populist within him.

On the day of the broadcast, Rogers drove from his home in Pacific Palisades, California, to the studios of radio station KFI in downtown Los Angeles. He started off in his familiar wry/amiable mode, joshing about radio commercials: “Now don’t get scared and start turning off your radios. I’m not advertising or trying to sell you anything. If the mouthwash you’re using is not the right kind and it tastes sort of like sheep dip why you’ll just have to go right on using it.” At various points in the broadcast, he said all the things Hoover had hoped for, asking towns and cities to do their part and even venturing the opinion that the President “would rather see the problem of unemployment solved then he would all the other problems he has before him combined.” But Rogers also confronted the issue with a solemn and eloquent fervor that put the administration’s inaction to shame:

Now we read the papers every day, and they get us all excited over one or a dozen different problems that’s supposed to be before the country. There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of [Treasury Secretary Andrew] Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours. And it’s not the League of Nations that we read so much about. It’s not the silver question. The only problem that confronts this country today is at least seven million people are out of work. That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of wealth in the country.

The country wasn’t used to hearing this kind of message, least of all from a quintessentially mainstream figure like Will Rogers. Did Rogers introduce into the national dialogue the notion that unequal distribution of wealth is deeply problematic, or that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide work for the unemployed? That case is impossible to prove, but there’s no doubt that Rogers’ speech (dubbed “Bacon, Beans and Limousines” by “The Survey” magazine, which reprinted it the following month) helped bring those issues to the forefront of the national conversation.

Rogers, for his part, eased back from the forceful positions he had voiced in the speech. In the 1932 presidential election, he tacitly backed Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he’d long been friendly with. Roosevelt’s election—and his New Deal to combat unemployment and depression—seemed to be exactly what Rogers had in mind as a plan of action. For the rest of his life (Rogers died in a plane crash over Alaska in 1935), he was with the Roosevelt program.

But back in October 1931, Rogers had been one of the first to voice outrage over economic conditions, and the response had been overwhelming. A couple of days after the speech, he wrote in his newspaper column:

I can’t answer all the telegrams and letters, but I want to take this means of thanking the most people that ever wired or wrote me on anything—my little speech over the radio for the unemployed—and will send them copies as soon as I can think of what I said.

Iwo Jima Letter

IMG_1873This past Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents almost precisely sixty years earlier. Years later, Bob would cofound a major philanthropic venture called Lambs Farm, which is still in operation. But at the time, he was a twenty-year-old Chicago kid, half a world away from home. Here’s what he wrote.

 

IN PORT

March 22, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad:

I guess this might be called “An Anniversary”, because it was a month today that I received my Battle Colors – in the invasion of IWO JIMA. Inklings of the momentous engagement came to me from the thunderous salvos of our warships tearing the Japs and their island to bits. From three o’clock when I first answered the call to man my battle station I could see the crimson and orange of cannon lightning and the brilliant bursting of star shells as they radiated their glow of death. And in the clear of the dawn I saw the midget of land – small, and so out of place in the vastness of the ocean, like a tree on a desert – “Hell’s Acre”, two and a half miles wide and five miles long.

Even in the happy newness of an early morning sun, the island looked desolate and grimly pale – first from the haze of exploding Jap guns and the bursting of our bombs from dive bombers and later from the mist of a miserable rain that kept falling throughout the day. On the signal bridge I watched the first assault of our Invading Amphibious Units that struck about a mile from Mount Surabachi, which was the strategic key to the whole island. The amphibious detachments from the ARTEMIS followed in another of the early landings.

Up until today, I have never given you the full “dope” quote about the ARTEMIS. I told you it was a cargo ship – but neglected to mention that it is also Amphibious. I only did this because I didn’t want you to fret too much – but now that a major engagement has been accomplished without a single casualty to our Crew, I feel that now is the time, for your mind ought to be more at ease. Please remember that I do not hit the beach with Amphibious Units. I remain on the mother ship (ARTEMIS) to discharge cargo, man the anti-aircraft guns and haul our invasion boats aboard when they return for fuel or a night’s lodging. It’s a good thing you are not up on our Navy symbols, or you might have discovered my well meant secret along time ago. It’s all in the address as “A “stands for Attack, “K” for Cargo and “A” for Amphibious – (AKA-21)

I believe you have seen the type of invasion small boats we have, either in the movies or in the newspapers. They are nick-named “Sea Going Jeeps.” I’ve ridden in them a number of times for transportation purposes and each trip is a new thrill as their flat bottoms make them as unpredictable as a “hobby horse”. They ride the waves as stoughtly as a beer truck churns down Division St. The front collapses and forms a ramp when they drive up on the beach so the troops can disembark faster and safer – and that’s about all there is to the hidden talents of the “”Mighty A”. Our convoy had formed back in Pearl Harbor and then went to the Marshalls and from there to our last jumping off place, Saipan, in the Marianas. Naval Regulations prohibit any mention of contact with enemy units until thirty days after the initial encounter, so you can see why I did not tell you about it sooner.

A horde of wonderings must be creeping into your mind, and all without answers. Most of them usual queries and having the usual answers. Was I scared? – and how! My nomination for the supreme heroes of IWO JIMA are the United States Marines who left four thousand comrades behind to be buried in the volcanic rock hundreds of miles away from those they love. To a thousand of that immortal four thousand who never made the summit of Mt. Surabachi, but whose death were stepping stones for the Marines that did, there should be some higher tribute.

I saw the American flag raised atop the crater and I cheered – but I did not know how blood red was that Star Spangled Banner. We had a few air raids that made me a few years older – but then one expects those things when stealing apples from under his enemy’s nose. After all, it was the boldest assault we’ve pulled so far, only six hundred miles from Japan. I had a box seat in fact, our ship was so close that the shells from our battleship screamed and whistled as they passed directly overhead. It’s no use telling you about the strategy or progress of the battle, because those who know how to tell it have already done so a hundred times. We won only because we out-fought the Japs.

All the advantages were on their side as we played in their ball park against fortifications that were impregnable except by direct attack with flame throwers and without the element of surprise for Tokyo have been broadcasting an accurate prophecy about the possible invasion of IWO two weeks before it came off. Yes, we were all scared when we first entered the battle, but I’ll bet the Japs wet their pants too. After the aweness of the fracas wore off nothing bothered us and we spent most of the leisure time of our remaining three days preparing special snacks of toasted cheese and spam sandwiches and large pots of hot coffee. Our reverie was disturbed somewhat by a “big ass Betty” (Jap Bomber) that came to see if the uninvited guests were still around – and damn it, we were!

My most memorable personal experience was the hoisting aboard of Marine casualties with our ten ton boom. It seemed everything was against our getting them safely on deck except GOD, and it was only through Him that we did it. The water had devastating swells that pitched the small boats we were hosting the Marines from unmercifully and to harass matters more, it was pitch dark. It took an hour to accomplish a task that normally would have taken fifteen minutes. Some of the Marines had arms blown off, others suffered shrapnel wounds and one died the next morning from severe burns he received when a tank blew up from a bomb hit. And so that night I witnessed my first burial at sea.

Two shells were strapped to his legs for weights and then he was placed upon a wooden plank that extended over the side of the ship. A huge American flag was placed over the body and threatened to blow off thru out the ceremony. I can’t describe how sad I felt when the plank was raised and I heard the body splash into the water. The empty flag looked so lonely and it seemed to wave farewell to a very dear friend. I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I’ve been in the Navy – tears for a buddy whose name I didn’t even know, but in a sense of comradeship I knew him because he played on my team and was an outstanding hero. I don’t know how this sounds to you – I hope not too dramatic, because really I can’t ever write exactly how I did feel – can anyone recite a perfect prayer?

Speaking of prayers moves me to thank the Clan and especially you, who have always remembered me in your daily prayers. I owe you much for the way those prayers have been answered. I nor any other member of the Crew received a scratch.

I’m in pretty safe waters at the present and I have no idea just how long we are to remain here. The best thing about this vacation is all the lost sleep I’m finally catching up on. Also the movies which are all I look forward to. We have them every night and they have all been marvelous such as “Going My Way” (third time I saw it and could see it again) “Since You Went Away”, “The Pirate and the Princess”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and others. I read “Keys of the Kingdom” four years ago when I was a sophomore and I can remember recommending you to read it as it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

I received a swell letter from you today and was happy to know that Russ is finally on his way and you are all well.

Love,

BOB