Posts tagged ‘American History’

Getting Back Between the Pages with an Old Friend: Part II



Getting Back Between the Pages with an Old Friend: Part II
By Charles Johnson

Over Christmas 2019, I dug out a book I hadn’t read for a long time and wrote about it here. That book was TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain, and I mentioned that next it would be HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

. . . And it came to pass that in February 2020 I started reading. I was expecting the same tone, the same boyish misadventures magnified by the literary mind of Mark Twain. Wrong.

TOM SAWYER pretty much stayed around his home town and in one summer. Geographically static and chronologically short. Small-town flings of puppy love, cave explorations and camping on the river, misguided decision making like attending one’s own funeral, and yes, a more adult circumstance like a murder to make it interesting.

However, in HUCKLEBERRY FINN, this is not the case. So much for small towns and adolescent concerns with a few adult issues.

The reader is fed a raft trip running over a couple hundred miles at least and for a good several months with several different settings. There is an alcoholic, abusive parent who is as villainous as any other literary figure. Con artists appear who bilk entire towns of their riches via fraudulent schemes. People pose as others to gain advantage. Houses are knocked off their foundations float down the river with some grizzly cargo. And while we’re at it, how do you help a runaway slave gain his freedom without being found out?

Read that last paragraph again and tell me it makes you think of TOM SAWYER.

There’s the Twain humor. There’s wit, desperation, ignorance and so many other traits that comes out of the wonderful characterizations that spin out of Mark Twain’s imagination – and yet, I can’t help but think he based some of his characters on people he actually knew. For those of you who write, you probably do the same thing.

As for the time period, by the way, we’re in the mid-1800s – the mighty southern plantations were losing their grip on their system of labor through slavery. One of the central plots in HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the relationship of Huck with the slave Jim. They travel together, getting to know one another better as they float down the river. Huck is revealed often as thinking “what a nice guy Jim is . . . for a N.” (Clue: politically incorrect term that starts with N and ends with IGGER). But by the time we reach the conclusion of the book, that last part seems to disappear from Huck’s thought patterns as he realizes Jim is a person who need not be categorized in any way at all – and that’s perhaps the lesson we need to derive from this Mark Twain work. The more we get to know people the less we categorize them with “for a ____.” You can fill in that blank with your own personal prejudice, don’t you think?

I had considered HUCKELBERRY FINN as a sequel to TOM SAWYER. Let it be said here and now – that’s like thinking it was a mere step between Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1903 to the Apollo 11 Moon Landing in 1969.

Read them both – I’m curious to know if you agree.


Shadows of Doubt and History

trump putin

 Harry Truman, who made one of the most difficult decisions to use a nuclear bomb in an attempt to end World War II after having replaced a four-term president and re-elected to office.

Dwight Eisenhower, who led our military forces in Europe during World War II, built the interstate highway system, and warned us of the military-industrial complex and served two terms as president.

John Kennedy, who stood toe to toe with Russia over missiles in Cuba and was assassinated in office.

Lyndon Johnson, who spent years as a elected member of the Federal government and brought about civil rights laws, re-elected and chose not to run again.

Richard Nixon, another man who served as vice president and held other elected positions and opened China. Elected twice and resigned his office.

Gerald Ford, who served his country as an elected person for many years in congress and tried to help the country heal after a difficult situation.

Jimmy Carter, who graduated from West Point and helped design nuclear submarines and held elected offices at the state and national level.

Ronald Reagan, who rose from sports announcer to state governor to the presidency, who is known for this statement, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

George H. W. Bush, who served as ambassador and vice president before his presidency.

Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar, who rose through the ranks of state offices to be elected twice as president.

George W. Bush, state governor, professional sports franchise owner and two term president.

Barack Obama, rising through state and national levels of politics to lead our country.

Look at all these men. Add to this list the huge numbers of men and women who have been studious and committed to policy and decision making in our country for the government as members of elected posts or served the FBI, the CIA, and the military. They have all contributed to a history of our country and helped establish responsible, decent government, complete with successes and failures. Nonetheless, our country has stood and has been revered for that history.

We are told now by President Donald Trump that all their work, all their advice, all the history they have with foreign policy, is just so much bunk. We are told beyond a shadow of doubt that their work is null and void as far as any investigation they’ve done. Beyond a SHADOW OF DOUBT.

We need to claim the legacy of our history. We need to honor the work of all these people, and of all our citizens, who have acted with good hearts towards such history.

I have run out of shadows. Enough.

BOOK REVIEW: THIS STRANGE WILDERNESS The Life and Art of John James Audubon

audubon cover
The Life and Art of John James Audubon
Juvenile Nonfiction by Nancy Plain
Published by University of Nebraska Press
91 Pages, followed by an appendix of notes, glossary and index
ISBN 978-9-8032-4884-7

John James Audubon – the boring bird man, right?

In Nancy Plain’s well -researched book, the reader finds out that Audubon was much more than that boring birdman. John James Audubon’s life crossed international borders, reached levels of academic achievement on his own, enjoyed his family, and truly experienced the American pioneer years as they grew from its very rugged beginnings in the early 1800s until his death in 1851. He influenced the entire world of sciences with his observations, thoughts, and artwork.

The reader meets the young James in his birthplace of Haiti. Then off he goes to France, then to America, where he travels the outback of the new country – and his artwork brings him back to the larger cities in search of a publisher for his work – and even to England for more publishing opportunities before he returns home to an America that finally recognized his work for the excellence it held.

Ms. Plain takes us on the journeys that Audubon underwent, as he observed new species, as he added to the knowledge of already known birds. These trips included the frontiers of Kentucky, the bayous of Louisiana, and the far reaches of the remote north end of the Missouri River. Audubon meets a variety of folks on his travels – the roughnecks in the local taverns, other naturalists who question his skills and abilities, and some Native Americans, who leave quite an impression on the artist/scientist.

Ms. Plain includes a large selection of the artwork of Audubon – from the smallest sparrow to the egrets and eagles. These pictures became the basis of the definitive book on the birds of America – and that book and those colorful drawings are still the standard of anyone who calls himself a ‘naturalist’, as Audubon often chose to call himself.

The book is billed for juveniles – starting with ten-year-old readers. Even with the great amount of illustrations, the text is extensive and the vocabulary is not for the beginning reader. The color illustrations are interesting to explore for the features of the bird and the habitat that is favored by that bird. Some of the illustrations are quite graphic when it came to the meat eating birds – causing controversy even when they first appeared in print. To add to the bird art, there are also some pictures of John James Audubon himself, and of some of the homes he lived in. Maps of the Audubon excursions would have been a good plus to include – perhaps such will show up in future editions of the book.

There is a strong historical value in this book for the young reader seeking to learn more about the man and his times – not only does Ms. Plain deliver deeper details about Audubon, but she also includes a solid basis of the first half of the 19th century of American History.

You can’t ask for much more.

The Gettysburg Address – on its 150th Birthday

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863


I don’t think they come any more famous than this.  Someone said on TV that this is 272 words long – I’ll not double-check that.  My goal is to be as short as all that with my own comments.

There is an extensive history for this speech –different copies of it that belonged to this person or another – how it was written on the back of an envelope while Mr.Lincoln was riding in a train to the event.

Consider, too, that these words were spoken during the height of the American Civil War – a time that makes what we’re going through pale by comparison.  Since those days, we’ve seen two world wars, a depression, exuberantly prosperous times, wars of varying size and weight, riots for union rights, race rights, gender rights, a space program yet to be matched, technological advances, scandals, great experiments in society, science, and education – it is all dynamic – it is always changing.

But here is what I take from Lincoln’s words – a speech that was denigrated as a failure in its time.  We’re aware of the famous beginning and ending – but as I reviewed this, I was drawn to the part I underlined – and in short, no matter how much we flap our lips about our travails, it takes ACTION – sometimes HUGE SACRIFICIAL ACTION – to get to the ‘noble advances’ Mr. Lincoln refers to.

Taking this speech to heart, it is good that we are so actively debating the issues.  We are making mistakes, we are attempting to clear them up – and maybe we’re spiting ourselves with blame, but we are out there, trying to make it work because of what ‘they ’- our soldiers, our forefathers – have done.

The words are there – let’s get the deeds done.  Sitting on our butts, casting blame all around produces nothing.

I’d say it is time to get to work on those ‘noble advances’, wouldn’t you?

(Lincoln wins… I ended up at 321 words….)

(NaBloPoMo for Nov. 19)