Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

One Summer: America 1927; Minnesotans in its pages.

April 12, 2016


Here is a list of 10 Minnesotans I could identify in Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927 (OSA 1927):

  • Charles Lindbergh
  • Graham McNamee — Yankees broadcast reporter
  • Pierce Butler — Supreme Court Justice
  • F Scott Fitzgerald
  • Sinclair Lewis
  • Frank B Kellog — Secretary of State
  • John Monk Saunders — directed “Wings” the first ‘Best Picture’
  • Andrew J Volstead — the Volstead Act, think Prohibition
  • Simon Lionel Rothafel — built the “Roxy” in NYC
I’ve developed a new hero from these names.   And you’ll come to see why.

Among these names, those I knew as Minnesotans from my first learning of their names: Lindbergh, Lewis, and Fitzgerald.

One of the two names new to me is John Monk Saunders, who deserves further exploration because of the praise heaped on his movie “Wings” which won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture.   And if you believe Bryson, the movie still stands in its technical achievement.   Speaking of movies, the “granddaddy of them all” (theaters) was the Roxy in New York.  It was built by Simon Rothafel (the other new name on the list) who was nicknamed “Roxy” well before he built the “bejeweled Roxy Theatre on 50th St at Seventh Ave”.    He also built Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockets were originally the Roxyettes.

Graham MacNamee — I’m sure I’ve heard his voice on Dad’s copy of I Can Hear it Now recordings from the history of radio and TV by Edward R Murrow.   Bryson’s  book reinforced the view that McNamee’s was the most famous voice of his day.

Andrew J Volstead earns notice for the act bearing his name, which supplied the weak legislation enabling the Prohibition Amendment.   He was merely doing his job, and retired to Granite Falls MN, well before prohibition was repealed.   My personal connection is through Pioneer TV, West Central Minnesota’s PBS outlet established by my father and others in the mid ’60s in our hometown of Appleton, which is moving headquarters 45 miles down highway 212 to Volstead’s Granite Falls.   This latter stands a better chance for survival as a more prosperous center in the area.   “Granite” was one our frequent sports rivals when I was in high school.

Frank B Kellog was Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of State, having been a Senator from Minnesota.   He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929, having drafted the Kellogg-Briand Pact, recalling my high school history, which outlawed war.    Kellogg catches passing mention in OSA ’29 since the fun and lights were elsewhere.   Bryson hasn’t linked his name to Minnesota.   Encountering his name was my inspiration to collect this list.

Pierce Butlter is interesting to me since we’ve frequently travelled on “Pierce-Butler Route” in St Paul, which parallels the railroad, just south of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.   In McGowan-speak, the question is: “This guy, what did he ever do?”.   I learned by a recent (before reading OSA 1927) of Butler’s having been a Supreme Court Justice, and had it refreshed here by his lone dissent in Buck v Bell. He went against the majority opinion, written by the esteemed Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, in one of the lowest decisions of the court, as it affirmed forced sterilization.

Lindbergh, Lewis, and Fitzgerald still stand at the top of nationally recognized names, not that the others weren’t so in 1927.   Few of these names, with Fitzgerald as the likely exception, are recognized as Minnesotan.   This thanks to Garrison Keillor’s witness of Fitzgerald, since  the Fitzgerald Theatre has long home of GK’s Prairie Home Companion.    Keillor has fused the name of Fitzgerald to Minnesota.

A few years ago, in a single day, Pat and I had the occasion to visit (in just passing by) both the Sinclair Lewis museum in Sauk Centre, and the Lindbergh boyhood home outside Little Falls.  This was while driving from Mom’s ancestral Nolan home of Brainerd, to Dad’s and our family’s of Appleton.   The route took us through the very setting of Keillor’s  Lake Wobegon, somewhere in the vicinity of Westport and Villard.

Sinclair Lewis has long been one of my favorite authors, numbered on the fingers of one hand.  He, for his depicting rural American life in Main Street, and in Babbitt,  our national self-seduction by progress of the 20’s. My favorite book of all is his  It Can’t Happen Here describing how the facism sweeping Europe shouldn’t be ignored on these shores.   The plot connects Vermont, by coincidence the ancestral McGowan roots,  to our home state of Minnesota.   Other fingers are reserved for Philip Roth, Louis Menand, Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and … ( who gets the thumb ?)

Lindbergh (save a thought for Roth) was a national hero of a generation.   But a deeply flawed person.   His Nazi embrace clouds any luster on his virtual statue.    Lewis, and in our era, Roth in The Plot Against America expose the ugly side of the American psyche which might have installed Lindbergh as President.   Roth makes an oblique reference to Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here in American Pastoral, when his character, Swede Levov recalls scenes from that book, but can’t remember the author.  Roth is piquing the curiosity of the reader unfamiliar with Lewis.

As a professional Minnesotan,*  it’s with humble pride I draw attention to these figures.   We are no less flawed than any such group of people.   Lindbergh, as the “greatest” Minnesotan of any such list, in my judgement was the most flawed.   My personal choice for ‘new hero’ is Pierce Butler.  For example,  the Wikipedia entry for his name takes you to a Revolutionary War figure, where our Minnesotan is found under “Pierce Butler (disambiguation)” as Pierce Butler (jurist).   This is all the evidence one needs to validate a claim of “flying under the radar”.

Butler, in his sole opposition to  the majority in Buck v Bell, struck a rare note of reason at a time when it was too easy, too popular — because of the eugenics movement sweeping the country — to marginalize the powerless.   He is noteworthy as the first Democrat appointed to the Supreme Court by a Republican, in his case Warren Harding. Buck v Bell is remembered for Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr’s majority opinion.  There is another connection here.   Holmes is a major figure in Louis Menand’s  The Metaphysical Club.  For my mind, Holmes is too-widely respected a jurist.   Menand revealed, dis-positive in my mind,  a Holmes quote:   “Decide first, reason later” to describe how he framed his judicial opinion.    I sadly feel this has survived to the current era, and was given added currency by the now-departed Antonin Scalia.   The mistaken approached allowed Scalia to wrap his preconceived judgements in the emperor’s new clothes of “constitutional originalism”.

In Buck v Bell, the case in OSA 1927, the result allowed the eugenics craze in this country to feed Nazi furnaces.  Bryson points at frequent Nazi visits in the ’30s to Cold Spring Harbor, which was the home of the Eugenics Institute.

Therefore, Pierce Butler is a new hero, a necessary figure in any age. He exemplifies the notion that on occasion, all but a single person stand between us and the brink.   I’m glad that he is a Minnesotan, and equally glad it’s not what he’s known for.


* professional Minnesotan — you know “professional Texans” since they are immediately indentifiable as such.   The reason you’ve never encountered one of us is our objective is to remain anonymous.  Think of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.   Minnesotans are most alike members of the Second Foundation.   Try to identify us.

Happy New Year 2016

January 4, 2016

It’s time to avoid New Years Resolutions and simply get on with the Year.

Things I’ve got planned for this year:

  • at the moment, Pat and I are welcoming our latest and 6th grandchild in Houston, Ellie Hoffman, b. 12/20/15, to mom and dad, Katie and Justin Hoffman, their very first
  • a road-trip to Minnesota in our new Prius.  I know gas is down, so why the Prius?   Isn’t it about time?
  • more social activity in the web, like WikiTree and Wikiversity, with my passion for Shell Functions,
  • re-hosting McGowans.Org on a more socially conscious web-host,
  • which will permit publishing my commonplace book,
  • continued work with our local Boy Scouts,
  • my alumni club’s Book Club,
  • the Nativity Choir,
  • see niece Courtney graduate from Wagner this spring,
  • a trip to our in-laws, the Hoffman’s on Long Island, no doubt to coincide with J&K’s return.

By the way, this was motivated by a local Houston columnists pointedly humorous predictions for 2016.    So,  thought I’d make some of my own.

On the Papal Encyclical (almost)

June 20, 2015

I’ve promised myself to refrain from commenting on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudauto Si”.  So, “what’s this?” you might ask. This is a comment on a comment: “The Pope’s Climate Error“, in today’s (6/20/15) NY TImes.

I was captivated by the title.   (in my print edition, it differs from the current on-line).  Further by the author’s credentials: philosophy, University of Toronto. And interestingly, his argument is honed with economic reality, and the pragmatic: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the practical.

My plan was, and remains, to read the encyclical.   And the next thing I’ll do. Since i’m one of those influenced by the last word i’ve read, especially if it has a liberal bias,Heath’s argument is now my point of reference.   One might think from the title that Heath disagrees with Pope Francis in principle.   He doesn’t. In summary:

Here he reveals the limitations of his own approach.  The problem of climate change is so urgent that we cannot wait for people to come to some kind of spiritual agreement.

And that would be my only quibble with Heath’s argument.   Who says we have to wait for people to come to some kind of agreement.   Stephen Carter offered the way through this apparent dilemma.  paraphrasing, at best:  in the marketplace of ideas, let’s allow all value systems, and especially not discount those arriving from a faith perspective.

In Heath’s behalf, he offers the necessary philosophic (mathematical logic, really) perspective:

 This commitment can be found at the heart of the “polluter pays” principle, which Pope Francis also endorses.  Most people like this idea when it’s read forward: “If you pollute, then you should pay.”   They dislike it, however when read backward:  “if you’re willing to pay, then you should be allowed to pollute.”

I’d not spent much time with this idea, and now realize my discomfort in it.   Hearkening, back to my teaching geometry at Benedictine, in the curricula of the time, this is where elementary boolean logic was taught.   “If A, then B, does not imply if B then A”, and so forth.   I used to challenge the students, “How may you answer ‘At a fork in the road do you turn right or left?'”   Most students, thinking for a few seconds would choose either obvious answer, some would still be scratching their heads.   I don’t think anyone got “Yes” as a possible response.  There are many ways to phrase such a choice.  The challenge is recognizing similar forks in the logical road.

Heath has shown me one I failed to recognized.

Not yet a diary

September 20, 2014

Since brother Mike introduced me to the latest in online software:

I’m moving my online public diary here.   I’ll have to get back to my tiddlyWiki-based blog  when I get some more time on my hands.    I’m also struggling with my commitment on command line vs web-based content.   Our NJ McGowans (Pat and my) content in question — private you can imagine — is purely financial:   expense, budget and financial, retirement data.