The 2005 California state quarter, depicting John Muir
In 1999, the United States Mint launched a program that, in the words of the U.S. Mint website, “honored each of the nation’s states in the order that they ratified the Constitution or were admitted into the Union.” The first “state quarter” honored the first of the 50 United States: Delaware. The last quarter commemorated the state of Hawaii, which joined the Union in 1959.
The California state quarter honors the subject of today’s entry in the American History edition: John Muir, founder of the modern conservation movement. It was the 31st quarter in the series. (California became the 31st state on September 9, 1850.) It depicts Muir taking in the marvelous vista presented by the granite “Half Dome” in Yosemite Valley, while a California Condor flies overhead.
At the bottom of this post is a recent photograph of the “Half Dome.” Notice any difference? Neither do I, and we have Muir to thank for this fact. On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill that designated Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as areas “for public use, resort and recreation … inalienable for all time,” thus paving the way for the first national parks. Muir petitioned the government to expand the protections in these and other areas, and the National Park Bill was passed in 1899 to assure that the spirit of Lincoln’s law wasn’t violated by logging and other uses of the preserves. Our views of the “Half Dome” — and the Grand Canyonn and Old Faithful and Monument Valley and the Sandstone Arches of Utah and the Colorado Rockies — are therefore nearly identical to the views a century ago. Muir certainly earned his spot on the California quarter.
Walt Disney is one of the best-known figures in American popular culture. But of course, he didn’t do his work alone. He had a remarkable group of collaborators, particularly “The Nine Old Men.” (The nickname is a reference to FDR’s disparaging remarks about the Supreme Court justices of his time.) These were the main animators at Walt Disney Productions, who worked on every major Disney feature for forty years, from “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 to “The Rescuers” in 1977. Meet them below (images courtesy of the Disney Legends site):
Les Clark (1907-1979)
Clark was with Disney from the beginning, and specialized in Mickey Mouse.
Marc Davis (1913-2000)
Animator of Thumper, Cinderella, Alice and Cruela De Vil.
Ollie Johnston (1912-2008)
Beginning with Pinocchio, Johnston directed as well as animated.
Milt Kahl (1909-1987)
The greatest draughtsman among the Nine Old Men.
Ward Kimball (1914-2002)
An animator who specialized in more fantastical characters, including Jiminy Cricket and The Cheshire Cat.
Eric Larson (1905-1988)
Disney’s great recruiter, always on the lookout for new talent.
John Lounsbery (1911-1976)
Like Johnston, Lounsbery was also a director: of “Winnie The Pooh and Tigger Too!” and “The Rescuers.”
Wolfgang Reitherman (1909-1985)
Disney’s chief animation director, and the creator of the dinosaur fight that played along Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in “Fantasia.”
Frank Thomas (1912-2004)
Like all of The Nine Old Men, Thomas created a number of iconic film moments—including the spaghetti dinner in “Lady and the Tramp.”
Thomas Edison invented so many things — there are over 1000 patents in his name — that it’s hard to keep track. The lightbulb and the phonograph are certainly at the top of any list, but what about the Carbonizing Chamber? or his Method of Bricking Fine Iron Ores?? or the Apparatus for Translating Electric Currents From High to Low Tension??? Those haven’t made quite the impact on pop culture that some of Edison’s more durable — or, rather, understandable — works have. However, it’s rather odd that Edison’s name isn’t more closely associated with the movies.
Thomas Edison invented the motion picture, and his kinetoscopes were some of the first movie theaters. But Edison’s studio wasn’t important to the history of American movies—for anything other than technical reasons. That honor goes to Biograph, M.G.M., Warner Brothers, a few others. And these studios weren’t peppered throughout the country. They were all in Southern California: the farthest point in the United States from Edison’s lawyers and their fervent defense of his patents. That’s right: “The Magician of Menlo Park” tried keeping movies all to himself, and Hollywood was created for legal and geographic reasons.
Want to give Edison his due? Watch this two-minute compilation of some of his early films:
Last week, in a post about Eugene O’Neill, we suggested a look at E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime.” Today’s entry in the American History Edition, about J. P. Morgan, gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at this remarkable novel.
“Ragtime” takes place throughout the United States, roughly between the years 1902 and 1920. It opens at a New England home, with a traveler in a new contraption — an “automobile” — stopping in for a glass of water. The traveler is the famous conjurer Harry Houdini, who punctuates the novel at a series of important points (including the end of each section and the final scene in the book). In between, a fascinating and exciting story unfolds, and I won’t ruin it for you. (Read the book!Skip the musical!)
One of the main characters in “Ragtime” is J. P. Morgan, and he’s rendered in a fascinating and creative way. In a pivotal scene, he entertains Henry Ford, whom he regards as one of his few equals and peers. While they chat in Morgan’s library — one of our favorite New York City spots — the financial magnate introduces a pet theory to the pioneer of the modern assembly line. Morgan believes that there are certain extraordinary people who continuously reappear throughout history, a line that can be traced back to the Egyptian pharaohs. Morgan wants to take a trip up the Nile to explore his theory, and he invites Ford to join him. Morgan’s extravagant theories clearly offend the genial Midwesterner, and he politely declines. The trip still happens, though without Ford. What happens? Won’t ruin that for you either…
Eugene O’Neill’s childhood summer home—the setting of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Ah! Wilderness!”, among other plays.
Far and away, Eugene O’Neill’s most famous and most widely-respected play is Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (Many critics have gone so far as to call it the greatest American play ever written.) O’Neill completed the play in 1942, after making the anguished decision to burn the manuscripts of the his nine-part cycle “A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed.” (The only surviving plays from that cycle are “A Touch of the Poet” and “More Stately Mansions.”) However, the play was not performed until 1956: three years after O’Neill’s death. (He had actually wanted the play sealed until 25 years after his death, but his wife at the time decided to publish it earlier.)
The main action of the play occurs “Monte Cristo Cottage,” the O’Neill family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut. (O’Neill’s father James was a well-known stage actor, and Monte Cristo was his biggest role.) The action — which touch on alcoholism, morphine addiction, and general domestic dysfunction — takes place in a single day, in the late summer of 1912. The O’Neills were at their cottage that summer, and the play clearly reflects actual traumas they suffered there. In fact, that summer was so important for O’Neill that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was not the only play that refers to it: “The Iceman Cometh” (1939) and “Hughie” (1942) were among the others.
But before that tragic trilogy, there was “Ah! Wilderness!” This 1933 play is the only comedy by O’Neill that is still regularly performed today, and it presents a very different picture of the playwright’s summers in New London. It’s a farce about a young man’s coming of age, Fourth of July fireworks and the more comical aspects of drunkenness. It makes for an interesting contrast with its better-known successor.
In fairness, “Ah! Wilderness!” represents an earlier time than “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: early July, 1906 rather than mid-August, 1912. As the critic Stanley Kauffman pointed out, America changed drastically in the time in between. For a brilliant account of that transformation (also Kauffman’s suggestion) you can’t do better than E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime.”
For over a century, Abraham Lincoln has been recognized as one of history’s greatest statesmen, and one of the English language’s great masters. If you’re still unconvinced about his prose, take another look at the final passage of his First Inaugural:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The parallel structure of that final sentence is magnificent: with patriot graves matched to hearthstones and, of course, battlefields to hearts. His next inaugural address, four years into the Civil War, would be an even more taut and sinewy masterpiece. And, of course, Lincoln’s talent for concision would reach an apotheosis with the Gettysburg Address.
In a recent article in Slate, former poet laureate Robert Pinsky pointed out another of Lincoln’s achievements: brilliant poetry. Lincoln wrote a number of poems, but the one Pinsky focuses on was contained in a letter he wrote after a visit to his childhood home.
My Childhood Home I See Again
My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.
O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,
The section that impresses Pinsky particularly occurs toward the end of the poem, and was excluded from versions of the poem published in many editions of Lincoln’s writings (it concerns a childhood friend of Lincoln’s who went insane):
And here’s an object more of dread,
Than ought the grave contains—
A human-form, with reason fled,
While wretched life remains.
Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright,—
A fortune-favored child—
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
A haggard mad-man wild.
You can read the entire poem, along with Pinsky’s commentary, over at Slate.
In the mid-19th century, American writers began (belatedly) asserting their own independence from Britain. Rather than writing in a British idiom that had little to do with the English spoken in the saloons and churches of the United States, they began writing in a uniquely American English. No writer did more for American English than Mark Twain, but the writer who codified the new language was the Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken.
Along with Mark Twain, Mencken drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including (in his words) “the argot of the colored waiters” of Washington D.C. Mencken’s project began with a series of articles in The Evening Sun (the evening edition of The Baltimore Sun) and eventually wrote a column asking “Why doesn’t some painstaking pundit attempt a grammar of the American language… English, that is, as spoken by the great masses of the plain people of this fair land?” Nobody answered the call, so Mencken did it himself.
The first volume of The American Language was published in 1921, with many supplementary volumes to follow. Of course, Mencken was preceded in his work by Noah Webster, who published the first American dictionary a century earlier. That said, no writer had ever gone as far as Mencken in the project of celebrating the vocabulary and usage of American English.