Posts Tagged ‘pierce butler’

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   He was merely doing his job, and retired to Granite Falls MN, well before prohibition was repealed.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.