Ayn Rand


I’ve written about Ayn Rand before, partly because I dislike a lot of the people who claim to be inspired by her, partly because I never cared much for her novels, which a lot of people like. But in reading The Passion of Ayn Rand, a biography by Barbara Branden who knew her intimately in the 1950s, it becomes clear that she was in many respects an admirable person who accomplished a great deal, but also lived a tragic life.

One of her misfortunes was to be born in Russia just as the country was beginning to descend into revolution. That was just after the revolution of 1905 that made some sweeping political changes in the country, but not enough to prevent the 1917 revolution that ushered in Communism. Her family, being moderately well off, suffered more than some from the dislocations of revolution and civil war, but survived. She was also Jewish, but told Barbara Branden that she never encountered anti-Semitism in Russia, though the country was notoriously inclined that way.

By that time Alice Rosenberg, as her family named her, had decided she wanted to be a writer, and that liberty and heroism were perhaps the values most important to her. When relatives in the USA contacted her family, concerned about how and whether they had survived the civil war, Alice Rosenberg told her family she HAD to go to the USA. Her family wasn’t enthusiastic, but agreed to arrange it, if possible. It turned out to be possible, though she came close to being refused.

By 1926, when she immigrated, she had seen less than wonderful things in Russia. Lots of hungry people struggling to survive, violence, people prevented from attending university or getting good jobs because of the social class they belonged to, rather than any crime they had committed. Unsurprisingly, she became a committed anti-Communist, having seen the way the system operated close up. Things got worse in Russia after she left.

Once in this country she began to work at becoming a writer in an unfamiliar language. She went to Chicago first to stay with the relatives who had helped her immigrate, then to Los Angeles to attempt screenwriting. She happened to meet Cecil B. DeMille,  who was impressed with her, and gave her work as an extra and other odd jobs before allowing her to write screenplays. She was moderately successful at that.

In Hollywood she also found her husband, who physically incarnated the fantasies of a hero she had had, though his character wasn’t particularly heroic. Marrying him provided her with citizenship so she didn’t have to return to Russia, where she could in no way have had the writing career she had visualized. She wanted to write about heroic individuals. That wouldn’t have been acceptable in Stalin’s Russia (unless they were Communists–and Communism was unheroic, in her view), and it took a long time for what she wrote to become acceptable here.

There was sympathy for Russia among American intellectuals of that time, a feeling that Communism just might help save the world. Rand knew it would not, but few people she tried to tell would listen in the twenties and thirties. Her first novel, We the Living was set in Russia and somewhat autobiographical. The main male character of the book catches tuberculosis, and has to go to a sanatorium; the heroine takes an unwanted lover so he can stay there, which sets up an unhappily dramatic climax. She is then killed trying to escape the country. The book sold poorly at first, but eventually sold more, especially after her better-known novels became popular.

The Fountainhead was next, about an architect unsuccessful because his work is too original. He has a friend, also an architect, who has little originality, and tries to succeed by copying. He gives this friend the design for a housing project which no one will allow him to build himself. His condition is that the project must be built exactly as he designed it; when a change is made, the architect blows the project up. He won’t allow his design to be watered down, nor allow anyone to have his work without meeting his price.  There’s a happy ending after that, too. The architect is prosecuted, but declared innocent.

Rand said the hero of that novel was her ideal man: in conflict with society, but not with himself. She contrasted him with three other men. One, the untalented architect friend who wasn’t the ideal man, but didn’t know it.  Another, stronger and more intelligent, runs a newspaper that tells the lowest common denominator what they want to hear. He could have been the ideal man, but wasn’t. A third is a critic who is not the ideal man, and knows it. He’s the villain of the novel.

The hero’s friend, unable to be the ideal man was, Rand told Branden, based on a woman she met who was obsessed with her career and very hard-working, but who rubbed Rand the wrong way, not because of her ambition or her work-ethic, but something else. When she asked the woman what was important to her, the woman replied that if no one else had a car, she wanted to have one; if everyone wanted a car, she wanted to have two. Rand was disgusted, but felt this pointed up a distinction between frivolous selfishness and actually HAVING a self that wants to accomplish something worthwhile. She called the latter “selfish” in a truer sense of the word. She saw the woman as being what she called a “collectivist” rather than an individual. A “collectivist” because for her success was strictly in relation to other people rather than a course chosen and pursued because of its meaning to the individual.

The Fountainhead became popular enough to have a somewhat successful movie made of it. But her REALLY popular novel was the next one, Atlas Shrugged. The idea behind this one is that the talented people, the ones whose ideas–translated into reality–are crucial to making society work, go on strike. Their complaint is they’re being told to work for the good of society (including those who deserve nothing, being unwilling to make efforts themselves) and are made to feel guilty for wanting their talent and work to be recognized and celebrated. This aspect of the novel is deliberately obscured at first, while Rand sketches in the decadence of the society which makes demands of its most talented members. Only towards the end does it become clear what is happening.

My memories of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are unclear, as it’s been fifty years or more since I read them. I didn’t really buy into Rand’s views, but what I remember most about Atlas Shrugged in particular is its insistence that its readers MUST agree with its point of view. For me that was off-putting, to say the least. It seemed almost like Stalin’s “correct line”, which all Communists were expected to believe.

Rand saw Communism and Socialism, both popular in America in the twenties and thirties (at least among intellectuals), as collectivism, and capitalism as individuality. She identified collectivism with the idea of the nation being more important than the individual, as seen in the Germany and Soviet Union of the thirties. These weren’t very attractive to those aware of the people they persecuted, though their propaganda deceived some into thinking they were positive phenomena.

Capitalism Rand liked much better because it gave people from almost any social class a chance. She found technology thrilling as a demonstration of what rationality and intellect could achieve, and saw this as examples of individuals being true to themselves.

But to what extent is this true? The production of technology is dependent on large organizations, just as totalitarian governments are. Is individualism encouraged in these organizations, other than at the very top? Why does the history of large corporations include intense hostility to unions, including the willingness to wound and kill strikers in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Have not the leaders of industries been as intoxicated with power as have dictators? Their aims haven’t been exactly the same, but they still required power over others to achieve them. Rand saw slavery as being inefficient, and if one’s aim is innovation, that’s certainly true. But slave-owning societies are stratified, which means innovation happens among the upper classes. Is this why industrialists hated unions? Industrial workers weren’t slaves, but weren’t far from being enslaved, having to work extremely long hours, often in dangerous working conditions. Their opinions weren’t wanted. Contemporary conservatives like to differentiate between “makers and takers”. Just who is in each group?

Does it make sense to identify genius and innovation with free market capitalism as Rand does? Capitalism has encouraged innovation, as Rand says, but is it the only system under which innovation can occur? The ancient Romans were notable builders. The ancient Egyptians even more–we still can’t duplicate some things they built. Did either society have free market capitalism? Both were slave states.

Which raises the question, for whom is the free market free? For the owner of the means of production and distribution, but is that true for the ordinary worker too? Historically, it hasn’t always been.

And technology isn’t all positive either. Rand didn’t approve of environmentalism, claiming that industrial civilization had lengthened human life, which was true–just not the entire truth.

‘”City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific technological problem, not a political one, and it can be solved ONLY by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death.

Actually, we have discovered that filthy rivers and smog ARE in part political problems because the people causing the pollution are often unwilling to clean it up, and are willing to lobby to assure they don’t have to. How would Ayn Rand analyze the recent issue in Flint, Michigan, in which many people, including children, suffered lead poisoning, which causes serious neurological damage? Or instances where a poisonous insecticide is often found on produce? Technology will fix it, but technology also caused the problem, and will not fix it without the political will to do so.

Rand points out that average human life-span increased in the industrial age. Again, partly true. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Crete had sewage systems, which later European cultures did not, until relatively late. Life spans increased, at least in part, because humans discovered that antisepsis prevented sickness, something realized by medical science, which also contributed antibiotics, as well as medicines to control diabetes and heart disease. This is the same science that tells us pollution is bad, not only for us but for the other forms of life on which our lives ultimately depend. Ecology is thus the justification of altruism and collectivism, both dirty words in Rand’s lexicon. We can’t survive without nature, and our powers are now great enough to be able to destroy large numbers of plant and animal species in greater numbers than since the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. To say that we have not yet destroyed ourselves in this way is not to say that it can’t be done, nor that we’re not in the process of doing so. It’s instructive how easy it is to fall into a false dualism in which nature is seen as something to be conquered rather than to be cooperated with, and human achievements are to be celebrated even though they may poison humans, plants, and animals. The world’s ecosystem is flexible, but human activities on a massive scale affect it, and seem likely to ultimately have regrettable consequences. That dualism would see the extinction of plant and animal species as nothing to be concerned about, since that point of view sees humans as more important than the rest of the world.

“Ecology as a social principle condemns cities, culture, industry, technology, the intellect, and advocates man’s return to ‘nature’, to the state of grunting subanimals digging the soil with their bare hands.”

Some say science doesn’t care what you believe. Nature REALLY doesn’t care. It would be nice to be able to retain and expand our current standards of living, but that may not be practical. There are only so many natural resources of the type we use to power our urban civilization, and if we’re unwilling to change our lifestyles, nature may do it for us. The outcome of that conflict remains to be seen.

Rand sees rationality, the most important tool of the intellect, as being more important than any other aspect of humanity. But another view sees the instincts and emotions as being fully as important, so that when their development is neglected, the person, culture, or society becomes unbalanced. This imbalance causes unnecessary conflict within individuals, between them, between them and the larger cultures and societies. Rand’s view of ecology is this conflict writ rather large. An example is the overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. An obvious way to redress the imbalance would be to plant more trees. Instead, we clear-cut forests for profit. Profit is not inherently immoral, but there are ways of achieving it which are.

A recent article in the New Yorker presents evidence that rationality wasn’t evolved to assess truth, but to make sure we didn’t get screwed by others, since our most effective means of survival has been cooperation–a way to argue better, in other words. If so, this perspective makes Rand’s position special pleading on the basis of identity–she was a genius, and deserved to be treated better, as do all geniuses. This may be true, but it’s interesting that conservatives (the main group to whom Rand has appealed) generally dislike identity politics.

The conflict, writ smaller, was shown when Rand embarked on an affair with a man 25 years younger, in spite of his wife (her biographer). and in spite of her husband. She had the power to persuade everyone to go along with it, though neither her husband nor the wife was really comfortable. Ultimately, this led to a break between her and many of the young people who gravitated to her and her views after the publication of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She exacerbated the problem because she couldn’t admit she was in any way to blame.

Barbara Branden makes clear that Rand’s views were very rigorously thought out, and that her novels were very carefully written to express just what she meant, and in a language of which she was not a native speaker. Her view of man as a potentially heroic being who often falls short of that level can be seen as admirable, though I quarrel with her view of man being superior to nature. Not many individuals have the strength to choose their own path and persist in it despite conflict with or disapproval from their society. I would suggest that not all such individuals are on a productive path, nor do all of them agree with Rand’s views.

There seem, for instance, to be alternatives to Rand’s lone genius view of creativity. Collaboration may occur more frequently in music than in writing. Collaboration between a composer and a lyricist isn’t unusual, and in a band context a piece may evolve from communal input instead of being shaped only by one person, and even be seen as being superior because of that input. That’s not to say one form of creativity is superior to another, only that there’s more than one approach.

Rand considered religion (or mysticism) to be a chief hindrance to rationality. But at least two 20th century men attempted to approach the apparently immaterial spiritual world scientifically, ie, rationally. One man who did so made much the same comment as Rand put in the mouth of one of her characters: that he would love to be able to have acquaintances with whom he could interact as equals. He wasn’t jealous of anyone approaching his level, he wanted them to do so, contrary to some popular narratives. His intellect was not inferior to hers, but he recognized other aspects of the human being, and taught them, as well as the intellect.

Rand accomplished a great deal in writing novels of ideas that interested and influenced a great many people. Not everyone will agree, but I think it’s tragic that she drove many people away from her because of her insistence that she was right and others were wrong, as well as her misuse of her power to persuade others to allow her behavior that hurt them. And while I think she had great insight, I think some of her views were tragically misguided, and are likely to have tragic consequences. She was more determined and powerful than most, but just as capable of being mistaken.






J.D. Salinger


I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, and didn’t get it, so I never became a fan, unlike (I guess) most of the rest of the country. I read his other books too, later on. I don’t remember making much of the short stories, rather liking Franny and Zooey, but not enough to reread them.

I lived in the same general area as he did for more than a decade, and drove through Cornish, New Hampshire every now and then, aware that he lived somewhere there, but not being very interested. I certainly had nothing I wanted to say to him, unlike a lot of other people.

Years before that I had picked up a short book by Joyce Maynard, called Looking Back. She wrote about junior high school (at a time when she was only just out of high school herself), which brought back the experience to me, but she had clearly been much more aware of what was going on around her than I had been when I was a student.

Years later, when I was living in New Hampshire, she wrote a column for the local paper, which I read pretty regularly. It was interesting, but I felt there was something wrong there, I can’t say what, because I don’t remember. It wasn’t that she listened to country music when writing a book, though that wouldn’t be my taste. I’m not sure I knew at the time that she had had an affair with Salinger, nor that she had written the book I read while they were together.

Later I read his daughter’s memoir. I didn’t have a LOT of interest in him, but still some curiosity. This morning I watched a movie about him.

I think it would be fair to say he was a strange man, with a number of paradoxical elements. His father was Jewish, his mother wasn’t, he grew up in a Jewish environment, privileged, but not liking it much. He messed up in private schools, was sent to a military school where, according to the movie, he got himself together.

He seems to have decided early that he wanted to write, and began to be published in the early 1940s. He wanted to be published in the New Yorker, and the magazine had accepted one of his stories, but didn’t publish it because of Pearl Harbor. He was upset about that.

He almost immediately tried to enlist in the army, but was initially rejected. He kept trying, and managed to enlist later in 1942. His first experience of combat was on D Day. He told someone later that he carried a manuscript about Holden Caulfield when he hit the beach, because it was necessary to his survival. Obviously he did survive, and it seems that not much later he met Ernest Hemingway (whom, according to the movie, he idolized) in Paris, got him to look at a manuscript, and that Hemingway loved it. The story is told by one of Hemingway’s grandchildren in the movie, so it may be true.

Paradox: after VE day he had a nervous breakdown, and spent time in a hospital in Germany. But he reenlisted to “track down the bad guys”. He had been in Intelligence with his company, which meant that he talked to citizens of each town they came to to find out where the Germans had machine gun nests set up, where clear areas were that ambushes could be set up, and generally anything else useful. He must have had a clearer than usual idea of local life and how it had been affected by German occupation.

His company also entered a camp in Dachau, so he saw many corpses and a few survivors. This must have made an impression on him, quite possibly especially because he was Jewish. Maybe that’s why he wanted to punish those who had done such things. Which makes it quite surprising that he married a young Nazi woman (clearly against regulations) and brought her back to the United States. The marriage didn’t last long. When he divorced her he said she had misled him.

He pursued his writing after the war, got published in the New Yorker as he had hoped, then published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, which was an almost immediate best seller. Many people identified with Holden Caulfield, the young narrator. Friends say that Caulfield was Salinger.  They also testify that he was taken aback by his sudden popularity and loss of privacy, and that he didn’t want to cooperate with the publicity, but wasn’t really a recluse either. He still enjoyed going out to bars and interacting with friends, but didn’t want strangers asking him for things, as he made clear later in New Hampshire, to someone who waited in his driveway to meet him. He had given his work to the public, but said he couldn’t tell anyone how to live.

The latter seems not to have been so true in his private life. After he married his second wife (19 years old to his 34, and with a troubled background) and they had their first child, they settled in New Hampshire and he isolated himself from her and the children much of the time to write. He had apparently been fascinated by her youth and beauty, but didn’t find her so fascinating after she’d given birth. It took some time–she probably lacked confidence–but she eventually divorced him, His daughter Margaret’s memoir (as I recall it) emphasizes that she didn’t feel she could please him. According to the movie, his son disagreed with her portrayal of their family life.

Joyce Maynard’s account of their affair, beginning in the early 1970s is interesting too. He insisted they meditate in the morning after eating uncooked frozen peas (pouring hot water over them to warm them), then writing, for which he donned a jumpsuit. They watched the old movies he liked in the evenings.

She met William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, and Shawn’s longtime lady friend in New York City, and apparently said something gauche. She said Salinger hustled her out of the lunch and bought her an expensive coat.

They broke up, she says, after going to the beach with his son. He and his son played in the water, he came back out, and told her he was really tired, that he wasn’t going to have children anymore. She wanted children, so she said she couldn’t stay with him, and he told her she should leave right away. He took her to the airport and gave her some money.

Later, she found that, just as he had with her, he had written letters to a number of young girls–they were always young–one of whom became his third wife. She also eventually decided to write a memoir of their affair, went to his house to tell him, and had him denounce her for it.

He stayed in New Hampshire the rest of his life, and seems to have been well accepted by people there. People who came to town looking for him found that local people weren’t cooperative. They didn’t want to be part of invading his privacy. One writer interviewed a famous man’s widow on just the other side of the Connecticut river from New Hampshire, and remarked that Salinger lived there. She remarked that he did, and that he had sat in the same chair the writer was then sitting in the previous night. She asked him what he would ask Salinger, told him that Salinger was all right, and was writing, and added, So you don’t need to meet him at all.

Why have so many people been fascinated with Salinger? Was his writing that good? For some I guess it was. I suppose part of the fascination may have been that Salinger didn’t behave like other writers in playing the celebrity game, which he easily could have. New Hampshire probably seems like a distant and foreign place to live to many. Actually, it’s not so different from other states, but may have fewer big cities, especially in that area.

Of course his response to fame was unusual, which didn’t make it wrong. He could have moved to New England just to run away, but he continued writing. The movie said that he had added more stories to the series about the Glass family already published, and possibly more about Holden Caulfield as well. According to the movie, these stories were supposed to start being released in 2015. I haven’t heard anything about that as yet. Was that story inaccurate? It doesn’t really make a lot of difference to me, but it seems curious.

He seems to have been convinced he was meant to be a writer, but what did he actually express? How important was it? I must have been too young when I tried reading him, because his stories made little impression on me. I don’t know if he really fulfilled what he was supposed to do.

Pioneer Girl


Many people are familiar with the title, Little House on the Prairie, because it was a successful TV show about forty years ago. But before that it was the title of a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, part of a series of novels about her childhood. It was a series my mother discovered not long after they were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, and she read them to us when we were children.

The action in the novels takes place in the 1870s, beginning with some of Wilder’s early memories. She was born in 1867 to a couple, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, whose parents had grown up in New York state and New England respectively, who had moved to Wisconsin, where Charles and Caroline met and married.

The wave of white settlers had spilled across the country west of the Mississippi about 25-30 years earlier, at first to the amusement, then to the alarm of the Indians. This led to wars which eventually ended in about  the 1890s. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t see any of that violence, but did see Indians.

Pioneer Girl begins with the family in what is now Kansas, living illegally on an Indian reservation, where the Indians weren’t doing too well. It was shortly after the Civil War, and payments to the Indians had been suspended during it, so they were in danger of starvation. Wilder’s mother and father gave the Indians anything they asked for out of fear for what they might do. They didn’t stay in Kansas long, traveling back to Wisconsin to live near family before heading west again.

That’s one of the places Pioneer Girl differs from the eventual series of novels: it doesn’t tell about the family’s time in Kansas, perhaps because Wilder didn’t want to admit that her father was knowingly doing something illegal, the book’s editor suggests. In later novels Wilder changes the timeline and some of the characters from how they’re portrayed in the earlier book. She also doesn’t tell some of the anecdotes of Pioneer Girl because the novels are aimed at children. Alcoholic and sexual escapades are omitted.

From Wisconsin they head west into southwestern Minnesota, where they run into a plague of grasshoppers that lasts several years. From there they head west into what is now North Dakota, where Laura’s father gets work with a railroad and also stakes a claim on land nearby what became the town of DeSmet, where he could farm. This is where Wilder spent her adolescent years before getting married.

The editor of Pioneer Girl comments that Wilder looked up to her father more than her mother, and her father was a hard-working and resourceful man. I doubt that her mother worked any less hard, though, and must also have been resourceful to be a pioneer wife.

One incident I remember being impressed with from the books is Laura’s father building them a house using pegs which he whittled to hold the structure together, since he didn’t have any nails. He not only farmed, but worked for the railroad, was on the board overseeing a church, served as a judge, and was a carpenter. He also liked to play his violin, and had a fairly extensive repertoire.

Laura knew they had to work as a team, and not only helped her mother, but contributed to the family through outside jobs sewing and teaching in nearby schools, beginning when she was fourteen or fifteen. She contributed money to buy an organ her sister Mary, who had attended a school for the blind, could play after she returned home. It’s uncertain what caused Mary’s blindness, though doctors now believe it may have been meningitis, encephalitis, or some combination. She probably couldn’t have gotten much better care in a big city in that day before antibiotics, and x-rays, but it points up how many problems there were even when civilization wasn’t extremely far away.

In the earlier books the family seems isolated, though that wasn’t entirely true. Wilder depicted them that way to emphasize how much they had to depend on themselves, but there were also other people to whom they could go for help. This was particularly acute during the winter of 1880-1881, the Hard or Long Winter.

Snow fell early and often that fall, so much of it that the town was eventually cut off, even though the railroad ran through it. The snow was too deep, and the weather too cold for the railroad to operate. Much livestock froze to death, and people were reduced to eating the seeds saved to grow crops the next season. Almanzo Wilder undertook to find a farmer a dozen or so miles away who still had some grain, a very risky business since he could have gotten caught in a blizzard and lost. But he managed to get back to the town with the grain.

Fuel was another problem. The weather was bitterly cold with high winds, and there was little wood on the prairie. Laura’s father began twisting hay together to make a sort of stick which still burned fast, but helps keep people warm.

With blizzards coming every two to three days people had to be careful about going outside. The storms were so powerful people often couldn’t see, and could get lost between house and barn, as well as in town. Teachers watched for blizzards and sent the children home as soon as they see them coming.

Her later novels depict their interactions with people in the town. They had an extensive social life, with Fourth of July celebrations, social occasions organized by the church, and going riding with Almanzo Wilder, whom she eventually married, first in a sleigh, then a buggy. He has strong fast horses whom he couldn’t trust to stay still in a crowd, so the two of them took long rides of 40-60 miles together in the summer. Such long rides were unsafe in the winter, when it was possible to freeze to death.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s period may have seen the most dramatic changes ever in American life. She lived to be about 90, dying in 1957. Her first glimpse of high technology was a train, as a little girl. But she saw the advent of cars, movies, and airplanes, as well as the ascendance of America in the world. She may even have been aware of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. When writing the series that made her famous, she insisted to her daughter (herself an author and editor) that her material had to be treated in its historical context. It was a very specific time, and very unlike much of the twentieth century.

She clearly had good memories of her childhood and adolescence, but didn’t publish any more novels after her marriage to Almanzo. She wrote a further novel, The First Four Years, but didn’t publish it, perhaps because of many hardships in that period which would have detracted from the optimism of the rest of the series. She and Almanzo had a son who died as a young child, they owed money they were unable to repay until selling their farm and moving to Missouri, and Almanzo had bad complications from diphtheria, leaving him temporarily paralyzed, though his paralysis stopped after they moved to Florida. The couple descended into debt and never became financially stable until Wilder’s novels became popular.

But, as the editor of Pioneer Girl says, her novels became classics of children’s literature. She ranks Wilder with Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and E.B. White as children’s authors. Our family certainly enjoyed reading them, and so did enough others to generate a TV show which, as you might imagine, wasn’t very true to the books.

It’s hard for us to imagine, I think, just what life was like as pioneers on the edge of the western advance of white settlers. The editor of Pioneer Girl makes clear that civilization wasn’t too far away: railroads were built (and Wilder’s father worked for one), and brought important supplies to the settlers, including seeds to make a crop after the Hard Winter. Had they been totally isolated, they might have been in danger of starvation. They were not, but didn’t have the technology (in particular) we take for granted now. We see Wilder and her world at the very beginning of the transition from the 19th century way of life to that of the 20th century. We never really learn what Wilder thought of all those changes, but the picture painted by the editor suggests that she took the changes for granted.

Her life overlapped mine. There have been large changes since I was born, but nothing as immense as happened in Wilder’s lifetime. She reminds us where our country came from.



Stephen Calt and Skip James


As of some twenty years ago, Stephen Calt could still appreciate some of the great recorded performances of blues from the 1920s and 30s. He had been a blues fanatic as a teenager and young man, but had become disillusioned with the genre, the older blues musicians he’d met, and the young white blues enthusiasts who took advantage of them.
The blues he traces back to a hymn by Charles Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), Roll Jordan. “The building block of the blues is the four-bar phrase divided into two unbalanced parts: a ten-beat vocal phrase, followed by a six-beat instrumental phrase. It is this unvarying phrase, repeated three times, that makes for a twelve-bar blues, and is the unique insignia of the form, removing it from the realm of spirituals or any other song form.”
Calt goes on to say that, although it’s surprising that one song should inspire a whole genre, neither white nor black had much tradition to draw on in the early 19th century. The Star-Spangled Banner, he says, was based on a German drinking song.
There was another difference between spirituals and blues. Spirituals took an obligatory happy attitude. Blues did not, probably partly to differentiate them from spirituals, partly because the singers were nomadic, and frequently in need of help. Calt suggests that the attraction of the blues was that they depicted life as it was, which spirituals did not. Lyrics by the traveling singers would often be about how miserable they were to attract handouts. Blues lyrics in general were usually not very original; they existed as a sort of pattern from which could be borrowed any line that would fit a particular song. Musicians borrowed from each other constantly, instrumentally and lyrically.
Many of these musicians, as shown by surviving recordings, were barely competent, but there were a few musicians who transcended their genre, at least occasionally. Charlie Patton and Skip James, both of who Calt has written about, were two of these.
Calt met James at the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. Calt was a young white blues fanatic. James had recently been discovered in Mississippi, and was to perform in the festival, along with two other recent rediscoveries. James took a liking to Calt, and Calt’s book, besides piecing together James’ life, tells about their friendship.
James liked to monopolize his conversations with Calt, talking about anything that passed through his mind, mostly his attitude towards life. He didn’t care for discussions, and said little about what interested Calt: how he made his music, and what other musicians he had met. Calt does record that he and Muddy Waters seemed to recognize each other at Newport, and that Waters didn’t seem pleased.
James had little interest in, or respect for, other musicians, even when they influenced him, like Little Brother Montgomery, perhaps the best blues pianist of the time. James was unusual in playing both piano and guitar at a high level.
He had recorded a number of songs in 1931, which had sold very little, as it was during the Depression. Among these are some of the greatest recorded performances of the era: Devil Got My Woman, 22-20, I’m So Glad, and Special Rider. Ironically, he quit trying to musically improve not long after that.
His father had left him and his mother when he was very young, and had become a minister. His father had some musical talent, writing and singing songs, and James happened to meet him shortly after his recording sessions. He played some songs for his father, perhaps hoping to impress him. His father’s response was to suggest he give up blues and come to Dallas, Texas to become a minister. After some thought, James decided to do so, not so much because he had been converted as because he thought it would be a comfortable place to sit out the Depression. He did eventually become ordained, but never had a career as a minister. He also never played music on the level he had again, perhaps because his father intimidated him as virtually no one else had. He may also have been deterred by the black fundamentalist belief that the blues was devil music, and that he’d be punished after death for having played it.
This view by the black community was probably because blues musicians in general were bad role models; usually alcoholics and misogynists, if not outright criminals. James fit this category comfortably.
Part of the blues lifestyle was pimping. Musicians generally had women who would give them food, money, and clothes, often managing this by becoming prostitutes, though sometimes by working on a plantation. James never depended exclusively on music for his income, but supplemented manual labor with pimping sometimes and bootlegging others, usually protected by a plantation owner.
Danger was another part of the blues lifestyle: playing at plantation “frolics” or jukehouses musicians often attracted women, whose boyfriends or husbands could get displeased. Few would care if a blues musicians turned up dead because of that. James early began carrying a gun, and was virtually never without one. He often told Calt how ready he was to use one, and how often he had in the past. He was shy on details, but left a strong impression that some of his encounters had left people dead or severely injured. Calt also quotes a lyric from one song, in which James sings that if he goes to Louisiana, he’ll be hanged for sure.
After James died, in 1969, Calt began putting things together from their lengthy conversations. James hadn’t recorded in the late 1920s, when he’d had a chance to, and when he might have sold a lot more records. James had said he hadn’t been ready to record, and that he’d been in the hospital. Calt began to wonder if he hadn’t been wanted for a serious crime, and reluctant to advertise his whereabouts. He also wondered how James had become so skillful on piano (he had never owned one), and wondered if he might have had access to one in prison.
James had traveled all over the Deep South, but denied ever visiting Louisiana, supposedly because it was too racist. But Calt remembered him mentioning having been in a Louisiana town. Had he done something in Louisiana for which the statute of limitations had not run out?
James generally approved of pimps and other types of criminals. Although he talked the fundamentalist rhetoric, he didn’t behave in a “Christian” way. He had little concern for anyone but himself. He couldn’t relate to the civil rights movement, seeing no use in voting. Though he was an angry man, he thoroughly accepted segregation in the South, merely looking for powerful white men to protect his bootlegging operations. He once remarked to Calt, “I don’t expect you to treat me like a white man.” After signing a contract with a well-established record company in the 1960s he decided that his wife wasn’t good enough, and took up with another woman whom he considered higher class. Ironically, he was less comfortable with her than his previous wife. His life in many ways was one in which he’d made himself miserable through poor choices.
James was in poor health and unable to make much of a living after being rediscovered. Part of the reason was because he was booked exclusively on the coffee house circuit, and didn’t know what to make of the white audience he played for. Calt thought he would have been better served to have performed for college audiences, where he could have had larger audiences and made more money.
But another reason he didn’t do well was, Calt speculates, because he was making a deal with God. He accepted the idea that blues was devil music, and didn’t want to be punished for playing it, though he did want to earn a living. So he didn’t REALLY play the blues which could be so compelling, which his audience might have appreciated even if they didn’t understand what they were hearing.
One of the greatest ironies of his life was that his music, which he’d essentially given up trying to improve on after his recording sessions seemed to be the only thing he had to be proud of. He may have made one or more women pregnant, but had never had a family, though he had married later in life. One of the few things that helped him financially was when the rock group Cream covered his song, I’m So Glad, which he had reworked from something very different. Cream’s version was very unlike his (though distinguished in its way), but James said, justly, that no one could play it like him. He had evidently spent much time working on it, and had been able to play it unbelievably fast when he recorded it. It was impressive, but a small thing to fasten one’s pride to.
Calt says he hadn’t understood blues when he first heard it and fell in love with it, only to discover later on that his love had been immature romanticism. He hadn’t understood that blues musicians were professionals, and lived squalid lives. His experience with James showed him just how insular the man who had approached genius in his music was. Further investigation showed him that few others of that time were much different.
The dominant impression one gets from the book is Calt’s disappointment. The music had seemed to promise him a great deal, and he expected more of his musical hero too. As of twenty or so years ago he could still be enthusiastic in analyzing what made James’s music so wonderful. But he was disappointed that so much of blues was crude and musically incompetent, and that Skip James was an anti-hero. I wonder if he ever found anything else in life to make him joyful as blues once had.

A Documentary on Amy Winehouse


I got to see a recent documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was very impressed–to such an extent that I started crying halfway through. I knew what the ending had been, and had begun to see it coming.
Hers was a sad, but not unusual story these days. She was just more visible than most people going down the road of excess. Prior to the film I had heard her name, and had someone explain to me that she was a singer with a bad drug problem. I don’t remember how soon it was after that she died. But until the movie, I had never seen her picture or heard any of her music.
The movie starts in exhilarating fashion: a teenage girl playing guitar and singing songs she’s written herself. The guitar playing isn’t distinguished, but the music is solid enough, the lyrics outstanding, and her singing even better. At one point she sounded like Billie Holiday to me, but I’d have to listen a lot more to tell if the resemblance is consistent.
Her musical career takes off pretty fast. We see snippets of interviews and her fronting bigger and bigger bands. She looks happy and alive.
But as her career progresses the picture turns darker. Her father, who had left her mother and her when she was nine, returns, and it seems clear that it’s because of the money she makes. Part of an interview with her mother tells us that she was strong-willed and determined to have her own way from the time her father left. Her mother also tells us she was bulimic.
Her mother apparently didn’t realize, as many parents probably don’t, what a serious problem an eating disorder can be. It was both the psychic and physical manifestation of the unsoundness of her foundation.
In her early twenties she remains relatively healthy physically. But there are psychological signs that all is not well. Her relationship with her father is one. Another is her relationship with her husband.
Before him she had been rather promiscuous, as if sex was a sort of pastry. With him, other things were happening. He goes back to his girl friend, then returns to Amy, and they get married. The movie states flatly he turned her on to cocaine, and that may not be all. A blood specimen is mentioned in which cocaine, heroin, and PCP were found. She also liked to drink.
Around 2005-6 going to rehab was suggested, but not followed up on. Her rising trajectory continued–for awhile. Her bands got bigger and better. When she was healthy she could still write and perform good songs.
Her husband was busted for obstruction of justice (I don’t recall the details) and went to prison for awhile. That might have been a good thing for her. It equally might have been a trauma. But later in the move is part of an interview with him that I think sums up how much he was worth: he says that he’s good-looking and dresses well, so he doesn’t need to waste time with Amy.
Amy, meanwhile, has begun to get erratic, but hadn’t entirely lost control. She’s been told she has to get straight before a US tour, and does so. One of the touching scenes (possibly from during that tour) was with Tony Bennett singing a duet (he was doing duets with various artists for an album). She starts out very nervous, trying to work with one of her idols, and he tries to get her to relax, almost like the father she never had. He also says to an interviewer that she’s a real jazz singer. A moment in her life I wish could have lasted longer. They made beautiful music together literally, not figuratively.
Later on she spent about six months on an island without access to drugs. She still had access to alcohol, though. As bad as illegal drugs can be, it seems the combination of bulimia and alcohol is worse.
From the island she was supposed to come back, and begin a tour in Belgrade. Maybe she had wanted the tour, maybe it was arranged with minimal input from her, but when the time came, she didn’t want to do it.
She went onstage to a real sea of faces, and refused to sing. I think music had been her healer, and now no longer was. With all the expectations from those around her (her father seemed fatter every time he appeared) music had become a burden instead.
Was it before Belgrade or after that pictures were taken of her at her house? I think before. There’s little light in the photos, and she looks almost dead, her eyes barely alive, her lips turning blue.
After Belgrade she wanted to return to her friends, and told them so. But by then she must have been both fearful and in great pain psychically, and maybe physically too. That was when she died. I think I remember that no drugs were found in her system, only alcohol. The movie explains that alcohol can cause the bulimic heart to stop. No doubt she felt she needed something to ease the pain. She had wanted to come back, but had gone too far.
This isn’t such an unusual story, but I found it poignant. One reason was her talent, which was enormous. A shame to see it snuffed out so soon. It may be unfair of me to find her case more affecting than that of someone less talented and less physically beautiful. She was gorgeous, and we (males especially) tend to be drawn more to the beautiful than the plain.
That leads to another possible reason: she closely resembles one of my friends, He (“She looked like they could have been sisters,” according to a mutual friend), and this friend encouraged me to write, for which I am grateful.
Her name is Heather Maria Ramirez, and she’s published several novels without making much money from them. Is she less talented than Amy was, or just not as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time? I can’t say.
But Heather’s road diverged sharply from Amy’s, as did my wife, Michelle Scala’s. All three had disordered childhoods, and both Heather and Michelle could have turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain they must have felt, just as Amy did. They were stronger, though, experienced the pain, took responsibility, and grew from it. If either were to become famous, they might be more capable of dealing with it than Amy was. Fame, unfortunately, destroyed the wonder Amy found in her music, becoming a burden more than a means to an end. Ultimately, she was, even with all her beauty, talent, and generosity, pathetic, and that’s a real shame. I feel sorry that she couldn’t have made better choices and learned to be happy. Her story is dramatic, but I wish it could have been less so, and that she could have survived.
There are many people who destroy themselves in similar ways, but aren’t as visible as she was. There are also many who undramatically make better choices, survive, and become a blessing to people around them. Heather and Michelle are two such people. There are many more whom we know nothing about unless we know them personally. Heroes need not be dramatic. But what a shame about Amy and so many other self-destructive people. She gave the world beauty. I wish she could have given us more of it.

Fear and Jerry Garcia


I’ve been a fan of the Grateful Dead for a long time, though far short of being a Dead Head. I just started rereading an interview conducted with Jerry Garcia in 1971, when the band was still expanding in reach, technique, and material. Comparing what he was then and later is instructive.
In the interview he seems enlightened, though that might be exaggerating. At least he seems happily engaged in his music, the band, and with his common-law wife, in spite of money and other problems with the band.
He speaks, at one point, of how some people fear, and put up walls to protect themselves, and says this isn’t necessary. Ironically, a few years later, he would begin putting up some very high walls around himself when he began using heroin. Why was that?
There seem to have been several reasons. One is a fairly unhappy childhood: his father died when he was quite young, he didn’t get along well with his stepfather(s), and rarely found school very interesting. So he joined the army at age 15, didn’t last very long, and then lived on the street. He had an unsuccessful marriage, then emerged into the Grateful Dead.
He was lead guitarist there, wrote and sang most of the songs, was very smart and articulate. That made him the focus of a lot of people’s interest in the band, something he always felt at least ambivalent about. No doubt it helped him pick up women (he did his share of running around), but he didn’t like the demand on him to be something like a messiah. He wanted to just play his music and be able to live like a normal person.
Accordingly, he began using heroin, left his wife, and became more and more isolated as he descended further into that process. The band, which had been expanding for its first ten years, seemed to begin to contract.
I base that at least somewhat on their studio albums, which was never the best way to judge them. But as Garcia got more strung out (and he wasn’t the only band member with drug problems), their outstanding performances got fewer too.
According to his friends, he never entirely lost his optimism and interest in the world, even though his darker impulses had surfaced and become stronger as he gave into them. Later he seems to have become cynical, perhaps (at least in part) due to his shame at his own behavior. In a much later interview, he said that there was a part of him that always said, “Fuck you!” when he tried to get himself onto a more positive path, and that he was reluctant to force the issue, since he felt that part of him was important.
But as he allowed heroin to take over more of his life, it began to detrimentally influence his health. Getting busted in the mid 1980s influenced him to quit heroin, and a severe diabetic coma that left him extremely weak influenced him to get healthy again. That only lasted a few years, though. He slipped back into heroin use and other bad habits.
Who knows if it was necessary for him to experience the negative side of life as he did? It seems a shame, as he appeared to be such a positive voice, and also seemed to recognize his shortcomings, without allowing them to take over–until he did allow them.
His story is probably not so unusual, it only happened in circumstances few of us experience. It takes something to resist our less appetizing desires, something we see quite clearly today, when so many of us are activated primarily by fear. Fear may not be necessary, but it’s a barrier difficult to surmount.

Wilhelm Reich Making a Life in America


After Wilhelm Reich settled in America his view of psychiatric therapy became something more tangible than abstract analyses of dreams, resistance, etc. He saw health as the free flow of energy in the body, and unhealthiness as anything blocking that flow. This view is similar to that of Chinese medicine, and acupuncture in particular is supposed to facilitate energy flow. On superficial research, though, I don’t see anything as deep or as systematic in it as Reich’s view.
Reich saw chronic muscular spasms as blocking uncomfortable or unacceptable emotional energy, which would then remain trapped in the body, unable to be discharged, which would create sexual dysfunction to greater or lesser extent.
The greater the dysfunction, he thought, the more rigid the personality, and the more liable to cooperation with and submission to tyrannies. He saw people in general as being unable to accept freedom and responsibility, which made them easy to manipulate by master propagandists like Hitler. This is no less obvious today.
Myron Sharaf, his biographer, who had previously worked with him, says that he resented the system which made effective treatment available only to a small elite who could afford to pay for it. By this time he was less interested in therapy than in research, but had to continue treating patients to finance his research. He tried various educational initiatives, hoping that some other method would emerge that could treat people on a large scale, but was unable to find any.
His view of sexuality was threatening to many ordinary people, but especially to people in positions of power. The director of the hospital in which Dr. Elsworth Baker ( a student and associate of Reich’s) worked turned against him (though previously considering Baker a particularly fine psychotherapist) when he discovered Baker’s interest in Reich’s methods of treatment. Still, he managed to conduct some research in areas that he thought would help people.
One area of research was with children, instigated by the birth of his son, Peter. He loved to observe Peter’s behavior, and noted that his primary energetic area was his mouth: when it sucked on his mother’s nipple, and the nipple responded by becoming erect, he saw the excitement manifested by the nipple becoming a unit with the infant’s mouth. Obviously, from his perspective, this was a highly important source of contact for the infant in particular, but probably also for the mother.
He also saw the infant’s eyes as highly sensitive and charged. Infants, he said, preferred lively colors, and if able to watch their surroundings while riding in carriage or car, would do so avidly. They also liked eye-contact with their mothers, but if the mother’s eyes weren’t “alive” enough, this could cause a withdrawal.
His experience with Peter prompted him to start a program to study the interaction between mothers and infants. The program never got too large, and other efforts got in its way, but Reich gleaned some insights from it that were ahead of his time. He was a proponent of natural childbirth, though he also wanted the safety of birth in hospitals. He didn’t want the infant separated from the mother after birth, unless absolutely necessary. He wanted to be very careful about medicines and other substances ingested by the mother during pregnancy too.
He also noted a behavior in which Peter shook slightly, and his eyes rolled up in his head after nursing. He called this “oral orgasm”, and saw it as analogous to adult genital orgasm. Again, the stimulus would come from the mother’s nipple. This is another of his observations which has been scantily researched since, if at all.
Another of his projects was treatment of a young woman with schizophrenia. He saw schizophrenia as being much different in manifestation from neurosis, but stemming from similar causes. The main difference was a split between sensation and perception, he thought. He found the young woman almost embarrassingly honest, in contact with her deep experiences, but with distorted perceptions. Neurotics he found to be out of touch with their deep experiences, because of their muscular armor, and unwilling to talk about what sensations they had.
The young woman felt “both protected and persecuted by her ‘forces’, the nature of which she did not understand.” Reich began to see her “forces” as projections of her bodily sensations, and focused on helping her lose her fear of the streamings of energy in her body. He stressed the necessity of GRADUAL release of emotion and energy so that the patient would not be overwhelmed.
He was surprised to find that the patient identified her “forces” with the sun, suggesting she perceived them in her whole surrounding environment. Sharaf notes that a number of Reich’s former colleagues were saying HE was schizophrenic at this time, and indeed he was perceiving energy everywhere, just as his patient did. But although Reich could be self-destructive and paranoid, Sharaf doesn’t believe he ever really lost touch with reality. He continued to have deep insights the rest of his life, even during the stress of being persecuted because of his work.
His concern with such a patient was to avoid such crude treatments as electric shock, but to help the patient learn to tolerate intense sensations without “going off” in the eyes (rolling the eyeballs upwards to lessen the intensity).
Reich said this patient had endured verbal abuse from her mother for years, and had conceived a murderous hatred for her, wishing to strangle her. At one point she asked to squeeze Reich’s throat. He said he was a bit frightened, but told her to go ahead. He said she placed her hands very carefully around his throat, and squeezed very gently, after which she sat back in her chair, and he observed her breathing normally (one of the indicators of whether energy was blocked in the body).
Reich didn’t entirely cure this patient, but her condition did improve. Sharaf points out that schizophrenics sometimes improve from any kind of treatment or none, but that this is rare. She reached a level where she could function better, though not ideally, being more neurotic than psychotic.
Reich also became concerned about what he called the “emotional plague” character. Most neurotics he called “character” neurotics. They were unable to give, but usually minded their own business, and caused little damage. “Emotional plague” people were different in that they attacked, and persuaded others to attack people they disapproved of. He saw these “plague” people as having a lot of energy, but being so armored they were unable to use it positively, and were envious of anyone freer than they. Sharaf cites Martin Luther King’s persecution by J. Edgar Hoover as an example of this: Hoover threatened to expose King’s sex life (Hoover’s own was questionable by contemporary standards), a method that worked with most people Hoover dealt with. In this case, King refused to be intimidated.
Emotional plague characters are also very prominent today. It’s popular to discriminate against people with different sexual orientations than one’s own, against women seeking contraception or abortions, and against women’s rights in general. This was the sort of tactic Hitler used so ably, as a means of distracting people and directing their anger against scapegoats. These tactics are used today by people of equal sexual dysfunction, as pointed out in the sexual histories of three of the men most responsible for prosecuting President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Two were also having affairs at around the same time, and one paid out a lot of money because he had molested a child.
When negative rumors started about Reich in the town of Rangeley, Maine, where he had his summer home, he tried to find out who had started the rumors and confront them directly. In one case, a local citizen called Reich and the people working with him Communists. Reich wrote to him, asking if he’d started the rumor, didn’t get an answer, but had his identity confirmed by others. Reich then wrote a letter, which the people working with him signed, talking about the dangers of slander and gossip, and how those using them as tools rely on people’s fears of being slandered themselves. Sharaf thinks he was successful in this case. But more serious problems had already begun.