Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wild about Harry

  “Without Haste, Without Rest.
Not thine the labor to complete,
And yet thou art not free to cease!”
   Epigraph from the Talmud in Henry Roth’s “Requiem for Harlem”

In New York Review of Books Nathaniel Rich praised four autobiographical novels by Henry Roth, who died 20 years ago.  The first time I taught Urban History, I used Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” which described Jewish life on New York’s Lower East Side.  First published in 1934, it was quickly out of print but reissued 30 years later to great acclaim.  At the end of the semester Teresa, IUN’s textbook manager, asked if I wanted a couple more copies.  The publisher had told her to send back the covers of unsold paperbacks and to throw away the copies, but Teresa couldn’t bring herself to follow orders.  I took the coverless copies but eventually tossed them. Roth had written nothing besides “Call It Sleep” until in his seventies, when he seemed to have a compulsive need to, as Rich puts it, to grapple with his demons – or as Roth himself put it -  to “transmogrify the baseness of his days and ways into precious literature.”  Roth’s dirty little secret: an incestuous relationship.
above, Shannon and Maxwell; below, 4 generations of Lanes

Saturday Dave’s family arrived with Chinese food from Wing Wah, and we played UNO and SOB.  On Sunday Toni got Mothers Day calls from Phil, Alissa, Miranda, Beth, and Shannon Bayer, who’s visiting family in Carmel with baby Maxwell.  Knowing that my mother would be having brunch with nephew Bob’s family, I called him at 2 p.m. my time and got to wish Midge a Happy Mothers Day.

Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote “I’m Just Wild about Harry” in 1921 for “Shuffle Along,” the first successful Broadway play with an all African-American cast.  One line went: “He’s sweet just like chocolate candy and just like honey from the bee.”  In 1948 “I’m Just Wild about Harry” became President Truman’s campaign song, which critics parodied as “I’m Just Mild about Harry.”  With his upset win over Thomas Dewey, old Harry had the last laugh.  Most famous Harrys for millennials: Harry Potter and Prince Harry.   For me growing up: Harry Belafonte.  In Truman’s time: Harry Hopkins and Harry Houdini.

An unusually large crowd was at Gino’s (including colleague Jonathyne Briggs) to hear Nicole Anslover talk about her Harry Truman book.  She mentioned visiting the Truman Presidential Library when just seven (her mom saved a postcard young Nicole sent from Independence, Missouri) and described doing research there as well as at the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson libraries. She stressed the many foreign and domestic matters demanding Truman’s attention after he took office near the end of WW II upon FDR’s death.  One anecdote I hadn’t heard before had to do with Truman inviting former President Herbert Hoover to the Oval Office on May 28, 1945, just a month into his presidency, to ask for his help in feeding starving Europeans.  Hoover listened silently and then left without saying a word.  Truman was furious until learning that Hoover was so overcome with emotion, to his embarrassment tears were streaming down his face.  For 12 years both parties had treated Hoover as a pariah.  An hour later Hoover called to accept serving on the Famine Emergency Committee.  Despite their political differences the two subsequently became friends.
above, Truman and Hoover; below, LBJ signs Medicare Bill

Mentioning that her next book will deal with Presidential transitions, Nicole discussed Truman’s relationships with his successors.  Eisenhower became annoyed when Truman arranged for his son to be flown in from Korea for his father’s Inauguration (I piped in, “No good deed goes unpunished”).  Even though Truman didn’t think much of JFK receiving the 1960 Democratic nomination, Kennedy was very solicitous toward him during the campaign and throughout his presidency.  LBJ signed the Medicare/Medicaid Bill at the Truman library and presented Harry and Bess with Medicare cards numbered 000-01 and 000-02.

Nicole pointed out that Truman wrote thousands of letters to Bess, his sounding board and confidant.  They have survived, but Bess burned the letters hers to him.  Harry objected, saying, “Think about history.”  That’s exactly why I’m burning them, she is said to have answered.  When Harry became angry at someone, he’d often vent in letters that he’d decide not to mail.  One he did send was to Washington Post music critic Paul Hume, who panned daughter Margaret’s piano concert performance.  Truman wrote: Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”  Nicole pointed out that President Bill Clinton hang a copy of the letter in the Oval Office.

Book club members peppered Nicole with questions and comments.  Ken Anderson said that he’d been looking forward to her appearance for months and was not disappointed.  One person asked about the poker games Truman enjoyed with members of the press.  Another wondered what was so bad about the “Do Nothing” 80th Congress that Truman railed against on the 1948 campaign trail.  While legislators generally went along with foreign policy initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, Republicans were determined to block his domestic priorities.   I pointed out White House aide Clark Clifford advised Truman to label his program the Fair Deal and to stress that its purpose was to continue and expand upon FDR’s popular New Deal.  Brian Barnes brought up the assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950 while Truman was staying at Blair House during White House renovations. 

In her journal for Steve McShane’s class Jenny Benedetti, above, who worked both at Dunkin Donuts and Dairy Queen, wrote about obtaining a washer and dryer: No longer will I have to pile up my laundry for two and a half weeks so I can make the time to sit in town for 3 hours. No more will I have to save every quarter I find, never paying in exact change, so I would not have to use money from my paychecks!  No longer will I have to do a clothes inventory to make sure someone didn’t steal any of my belongings!”  Purchasing a bed, she stated matter-of-factly: “My dog and I no longer fit on a twin mattress so it was time for an upgrade.”  Into the video game “Fire Emblem” and the Japanese comic book series “Naruto,” Jenny described getting her septum pierced:
The piercer didn’t use a piercing gun, but literally just shoved the needle through. Frankly, it really grossed me out and I almost backed out. The piercing did hurt, but nearly as bad as I thought. I am really happy with it!  It will take ten weeks to heal, and I cannot blow my nose in that time. Considering my allergies have been acting up, this will pose a problem.
 Erica and Dan

Erica Borgo was born in Okinawa, where her dad had been stationed, and her mother is Japanese.  She grew up in Illinois, married Dan, a Munster native, and they lived in Merrillville.  Since 2008 she’s worked at Culvers and wrote in her journal:
It has helped me grow as a person in so many ways I would have never guessed. I used to be so shy and confined. Now, I am more confident and understand people better. I can talk and relate to older people now and learned to work as a team.  I have some interesting people that eat there regularly that ask for me. These older ladies that come in every Thursday are so sweet and are probably in their 70s and 80s. I hope to be like them when I get older; having a group of is this little old Jewish guy that comes in at least once a week to come see me. He talks so much my coworkers warn me when they see him coming in the doors now. He will talk your ear off. I am ok with talking for about 15 minutes but feel bad when we are busy. I have this couple that comes in every week on their way back home from Wisconsin baby-sitting their grandkids. It’s funny how you don’t even really have to talk that much to people and they like you already.
Betty Koed and Don Ritchie

Ray Smock posted a photo taken at Senate Historian Don Ritchie’s retirement.  My favorite story about my fellow Marylanders is when Ray somehow managed to get Don into a topless bar and then managed to photograph the event.

David Malham passed on an article by Mark Bauerlein entitled “What’s the point of a professor?”  It bemoaned the lack of interaction between instructors and students, concluding: When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.”  An English professor at Emery, Bauerlein wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).”  Sounds like a dumb book.

Thomas Newsome, another former student, visited the Archives in search of information about the Gary NAACP.  Steve McShane made copies of pages from a booklet, and I gave him “Gary’s First Hundred Years,” drawing his attention to what I wrote about civil rights crusader Joseph Pitts and discrimination cases argued by Richard Hatcher on the group’s behalf.

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