Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Era of Good Feelings

James Monroe, Trying to Hide His Good Feelings

It was famously said of George Washington that he was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  It might be said of James Monroe that he was last in several notable respects.

Monroe was the fifth U.S. president, but he was the last candidate to run unopposed.  He was the last veteran of the American Revolution to serve as president.  He was the last president to dress in the old colonial fashion, with breeches and a ruffled shirt.  Monroe was the last president to die on July 4th (three of the first five presidents did).

It might be stretching the truth a little, but one could perhaps also make a case that James Monroe’s presidency was the last time the American political system wasn’t hobbled by rancorous partisanship.  In fact, the overall mood in the young country was so positive in the period from 1816 to 1824 that those years are known by historians as the Era of Good Feelings.

That designation may be a little misleading.  All 9.6 million residents of the United States were not standing around a campfire, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya”.  There were problems — chiefly the evil of slavery — that were simmering.  Economic boom years went bust, resulting in the Panic of 1819.  For a few years, though, people of opposing views were able to express their opinions without spittle flying.  In a spirit of cooperation and compromise, Congress actually accomplished a few things.

There were several reasons for this brief respite.  For one thing, the War of 1812 had come to a successful conclusion (from the point of view of the U.S.).  After decades of hostilities, Americans could catch their breath, so to speak.  The Federalist party, which had staked its reputation on opposition to the war, now slunk off into oblivion.  That meant there was basically only one political party, so it managed to get along with itself reasonably well.  You’ll love the irony:  that harmonious political party was known as the Democratic-Republicans.

The country was growing, both in area and numbers; by 1819 nine new states had joined the original thirteen.  The president announced what later came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, spelling out U.S. foreign policy.  It basically stated that a) the American continents were off-limits for further European colonization, and b) the U.S. would stay out of European political affairs unless its own interests were directly involved.

All of these elements combined to establish that U.S. independence was no longer an iffy proposition.  In other words, the Era of Good Feelings was probably due to the collective sense of satisfaction that Americans had; it’s as if there was a giant thought-bubble over their heads that said, “Hey, we made it!”  And since television had not yet been invented, there were no professional demagogues to tell them otherwise.

Incidentally, here’s another James Monroe “last”.  As far as I know, he is the last U.S. President to have a foreign capital named for him:  the capital of Liberia is called Monrovia in his honor.  No, Cleveland doesn’t count — it’s not a foreign capital, and it was named long before Grover Cleveland was president!  Sorry… I didn’t mean to raise my voice when we were having these good feelings.

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Baseball’s Best

25 Main Street, Cooperstown, NY

There are some travel destinations that have to be intentional.  What I mean by that is that they are found in places that are not on the way to (or from) someplace else; you have to go there on purpose.  Let me illustrate:  If you’re in Paris, it’s no big deal to decide to go see Monet’s house in Giverny.  That’s easy enough to do; it’s a short train ride from Gare St-Lazare in Paris to Giverny.  If you’re in Uruguay, though, you’re not as liable to say, “Since we’re here, why don’t we pop over to Antarctica?”  It’s not exactly in the neighborhood — you have to intend to go to Antarctica.

As far as I’m concerned, the Baseball Hall of Fame is also in that category of not-on-the-way-to-anywhere-else.  In case you’re hazy on its location, Cooperstown, New York, is roughly ninety miles from Albany and a similar distance from Syracuse.  Why you would be in either of those cities is your own business, but they aren’t usually included in those lists of places you must see before you die.  For some of us, however, a visit to the Hall of Fame is not a side trip anyway — it’s a pilgrimage.

Baseball’s shrine is located in the remote village of Cooperstown for dubious reasons.  Supposedly a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented the game there.  He probably didn’t, but that story had gained some traction in the early years of the 20th century.  During the Great Depression, a local hotel owner hatched the idea of the Hall of Fame as a means of drawing tourists to the area.  Somehow he got Major League Baseball to go along, and the Hall was opened in 1939.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as it is officially known, currently houses hundreds of thousands of photographs and millions of documents pertaining to the sport, but its chief attraction is the collection of almost 300 bronze plaques honoring baseball’s best.  Below the bas-relief portrait of each immortal is a brief summary of his career accomplishments.  Babe Ruth’s, for example, reads “Greatest drawing card in history of baseball.  Holder of many home run and other batting records.  Gathered 714 home runs in addition to fifteen in World Series.”

Even though most us never saw Ruth play, we could recite more facts about him than that.  And many visitors do just that in the Hall — one generation shares with another the lore of a game they love.

The Hall of Fame also happens to be a terrific museum; it has multimedia presentations and interactive exhibits that are not dusty or permanently “out of order”.  It has an extensive collection of stuff baseball fans enjoy seeing, such as a display of baseballs used in every no-hitter since 1940, and old uniforms worn on historic occasions, and rare baseball cards.  In short, the Baseball Hall of Fame is well worth the $16.50 admission price for adults ($6.00 for kids).  It’s even worth that long drive into Cooperstown.

In the unlikely event that you should find yourself in Cooperstown and you are not a baseball fan, there are a couple of nearby attractions.  You could always pop over to the Fenimore Art Museum or the Farmers’ Museum.  They’re both right in the neighborhood.

Look, You Can See Our Farm From Up Here

In temperate climates, this is the time of year when corn, watermelon, and Ferris wheels proliferate.  The latter can be found at parking-lot carnivals and county fairs almost everywhere during the warmer months.  In addition to being distinctive symbols of these events, Ferris wheels provide seasonal employment for fellows whose tattoos outnumber their teeth.

There are also permanent, more sophisticated versions that are tourist attractions in places like Vienna and London.  Singapore has a Ferris wheel that is currently the world’s tallest (541 feet), but Beijing has one under construction that, when completed, will top that.  The original was 264 feet high; it was designed and built for a world exposition held in Chicago in 1893.  You probably won’t be shocked that the name of the man who designed it was Ferris.

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. had been an engineer specializing in bridge-building and other large-scale projects.  When the organizers of the World’s Columbian Exposition challenged American architects and engineers to come up with a landmark that would rival the Eiffel Tower (which had been built for the Paris Expo in 1889), Mr. Ferris presented his plan for what he called an “observation wheel”.

The organizers considered him a crackpot at first, but when he came back with $400,000 from local investors to pay for construction, the committee reconsidered and gave him the go-ahead.  George Ferris had to solve a number of problems during construction, not least of which was how to pour concrete pilings in sub-zero January temperatures.

The wheel wasn’t ready when the Exposition opened, but it began operating a few weeks later and was a huge success.  In 19 weeks it carried an estimated 1.5 million visitors, even though a single ticket was, for the average guy, a sizable chunk of his paycheck — 50 cents.

A ride on the original Ferris wheel lasted about twenty minutes, and made two revolutions:  the first stopped six times for loading and unloading, and the second was one nine-minute nonstop loop.  On one occasion, George gave a dramatic demonstration of the Ferris wheel’s safety by taking his wife and a reporter for a ride on it during a storm with 100+ mile-per-hour winds.  They came through it without incident — although Mrs. Ferris left George soon thereafter.  

When the World’s Columbian Exposition concluded, the Ferris wheel had generated something like $750,000 in revenue, but the organizers seem to have used it to cover other expenses.  George Ferris spent the next couple of years in court, unsuccessfully trying to get his (and his investors) share of the profits.  The original Ferris wheel eventually sold at a bankruptcy auction for $8,150 and was carted off to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  George had died broke and alone in 1896, but he did get his name forever associated with the “observation wheel”.

Incidentally, George Ferris was not the only member of his family who made a contribution to our enjoyment of carnivals.  He had an uncle, Nathan Ferris, who was a popcorn pioneer — he even popped up a batch for Queen Victoria in 1846.  In his honor, perhaps we should call the colossal bags of carnival kettle corn “Nathans”.

Poetic Injustice

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

If you have dinner guests who overstay their welcome, here’s a sure-fire way to get them out the door.  Just say, “I’ve got an idea:  let’s see if we can name ten poets!  OK, there’s Homer… and Lord Byron…”  Your (former) friends will scoop up their purses and be in their cars long before you get to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

It’s too bad that so many people dislike poets and poetry.  Some poetry is terrible, of course, but at its best, the words sing.  That might not be a bad way to think about a poem — it’s a song that doesn’t need music.

Many of the poets were fascinating characters, too.  W.B. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923; he also served a couple of terms in the Irish Senate and had as many romantic liasons as an American politician.  Emily Dickinson was a recluse, to the point that she couldn’t leave her home.  Sometimes she would only converse with visitors by shouting from the top of the stairs.  The family of Dante contractually promised him in marriage at age 12.  Sadly, he was already in love with someone else.

Another poet with an unusual life — and one who almost certainly wouldn’t have been among the first ten names you came up with — is Gerard Manley Hopkins.  His experiments with rhythmic structure had a major influence on the development of modern poetry, but like Van Gogh (who was Hopkins’ contemporary), his work was virtually unknown during his lifetime.

That was largely Hopkins’ own fault.  He was a Jesuit priest, and became convinced that it would be egotistical to share his work with a wide audience.  It would compromise his vow of humility, Hopkins believed, so he chose not to publish his poems at all.  In fact, most of his early poems are lost forever, because he burned them when he entered the priesthood.  Only a few close associates knew of Hopkins’ talent; one of them finally got a collection published in 1918 — twenty-nine years after the poet died.

In one of his sonnets, Hopkins has a private dispute with the God he is trying to faithfully serve.  As you’ll see, he doesn’t think it’s fair that the bad guys prosper while he — the lonely priest — feels like his soul is parched.  In fact, that’s the metaphor he uses:  the wicked are growing like aromatic herbs (“chervil”, in line 11), while Hopkins considers himself a withered, dried out shrub.  The last line of this poem still makes me swallow hard in sympathy for Gerard Manley Hopkins, who never got to know how good he was…

Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disapppointment all I endeavour end?
       Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?  Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause.  See, banks and brakes
Now, leavéd how thick! lacéd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build — but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. 

Worlds Apart

This was just steps from the baggage claim area.

An acquaintance was grumbling about the deteriorating condition of streets in a neighborhood near his home.  “It’s like a Third World country,” he said.  I wondered aloud what it would take to improve that neighborhood to Second World status.  He gave me a wry smile, as if to say, “Shut up, Tom.”  It’s a reasonable question though, isn’t it?  I mean, we all seem to have a mental picture of what a Third World country looks like, so — what is the Second World?  And who established the rankings?

This particular Three World concept originated with some French historians and anthropologists in the 1950s.  That was during the so-called Cold War, when the United States and its allies faced off against the Soviet Union, with both sides threatening to blow the planet into fragments just to teach the other guy a lesson.  It was in that political context that Frenchman Alfred Sauvy wrote a think piece in which he designated the developed capitalist countries (U.S. and friends) as the First World, and the Soviet bloc as the Second World.  If the author had been Bulgarian, first and second probably would have been reversed.

The Third World, in Sauvy’s arrangement, was the group of countries that were not politically aligned with either of the other two “worlds”, and didn’t have the financial resources to build mega-bombs of their own.  That basically meant countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, most of which had been colonies of First and Second World countries.

Sauvy may have borrowed his Three World concept from earlier triple-tiered visions of society, such as the Three Estates of the Middle Ages.  In that scheme, the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate was the people who worked for a living, and who were compelled to provide financial support for the first two estates.  The French Revolution was an attempt to reorganize that arrangement.

At any rate, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the First World and Second World designations pretty much disappeared, but the term Third World is still around.  It is currently used not in a political sense, but an economic one.  Third World, as we know, is now a synonym for the poor countries of the world.  I should point out that the term “developing country” is preferred, especially in developing countries, for the same reason that people would rather be characterized as “seniors” or “generously proportioned”, rather than “geezers” or “obese”.

Instead of Three Worlds, then, what we now have is developed countries, and we have developing countries.  There are statistical tables that enable economists and social scientists to determine which countries fit into each category.  From my own personal experience, though, here’s a handy rule of thumb:  A developed country is one where the average person (Third Estate) has access to paved roads and flush toilets.  A developing country is one that does not have telemarketers yet.