Maybe Bruce Springsteen Was Born to Run Home

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Springsteen on Broadway (courtesy of Netflix)

Religion News Service is running my piece on Catholicism and “home” in “Springsteen on Broadway.” Needless to say, I had fun with this one.

Here is a taste:

Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … (the priests and nuns) did their work hard and they did it well.”

Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.

Maybe this is what it means, as he wrote famously in “Born to Run,” to “get to that place where we really want to go” where we can “walk in the sun.” Maybe Bruce Springsteen was born to run home.

Over the years, Springsteen has become the darling of progressive politicians. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and (briefly) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he tells his story on Broadway, he transports us back to a day when progressive ideals and the relentless quest for the American dream were not separated from tradition, roots, place, a longing for home, and Christian faith.

Read the entire piece here.

Something for Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Think About

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Sarah Huckabee Sanders has replaced Sean Spicer as Donald Trump’s Press Secretary.  Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, is an evangelical Christian.

Most American evangelicals are fond of C.S. Lewis.  Perhaps Sanders has read “The Chronicles of Narnia” series to her children or hopes that they will read it on their own some day.  I imagine that Sanders would embrace much of what Lewis has to say in his classic Mere Christianity.

With this in mind, I hope Sanders gets a chance to read Jennifer Rubin’s short Washington Post piece “The inevitable, fitting end to Spicer’s miserable tenure in the White House.”  Rubin’s “moral argument” is definitely worth considering, not only for Sanders, but for all of us.

Here is a taste:

There is a moral argument, I suppose, for men and women who chose to go into this administration to serve in Cabinet-level or sub-Cabinet positions out of a sense of obligation to the country. (The better argument is that working in this administration inevitably leads to enabling wrongdoing and horrible policy decisions, but I understand the rationale of those who disagree with me.) However, there is no moral argument for going directly into the president’s senior/political staff, which in this administration means defending indefensible conduct, denying reality and encouraging others to lie in defense of the administration. You cannot serve in a dishonorable White House honorably.

Spicer willingly embraced the effort to intimidate and silence the press. He accepted his role in trying to demolish objective reality. He relished the mission to discredit every independent source of information that might contradict the president. In doing so he, more than any predecessor, did harm to the First Amendment and to the White House. He lowered the standard set by administrations of both parties — spin, advocate and sidestep but never lie.

For young, ambitious men and women in Washington and elsewhere, Spicer is an object lesson. Ambition and yearning to be in the “know,” in the center of power (what C.S. Lewis called the “inner ring“), can lead one to cast aside principle, values and simple decency. Lewis described the impulse to be an insider:

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. … Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

Read the entire piece here.

The Democratic Malaise

revoltThis morning I picked up my copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book The Revolt and the Elite and the Betrayal of Democracy and started reading it again.  I am still trying to process it all from the perspective of the so-called age of Trump, but here is a relevant passage from the Introduction.

p. 5-6: Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility, local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today…Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figuted only marginally in the nineteenth-century definition of opportunity…Anbitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead…The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a national technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregation on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture….The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world–not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

As I read this passage I began to wonder how much the ascension of Trump is really a story that can be explained through the lens of “place.”  Healthy democracies often require face-to-face engagement in public spaces where ideas can be exchanged in civil ways. Sadly, it is hard to find these kind of spaces in America today.  Ambitious kids in search of the American dream no longer seem to find that dream at home, unless, of course, home is on the coasts.  They go off to college and never come back, depriving the communities that raised them of the intellectual resources and skills in informed, evidence-based conversation that are necessary for democracy to function at the local level.  (This, of course, assumes that they are getting these skills and resources from college.  With the rise of professional programs at the expense of the humanities this kind of education is no longer a given).

While Lasch’s juxtaposition of the “elite” and the “people may be a bit contrived, I think he does have a point.  If time allows, I will try to develop some of my thinking along these lines and post some more stuff from Revolt of the Elites.  I want to reread Revolt alongside J.D. Vance’s celebrated Hillbilly Elegy.

Stay tuned, and thanks for thinking with me on this front.

Webb: Soccer Is Too Tragic for Americans

Why hasn’t professional soccer caught on in the United States?  Stephen W. Webb, a writer and philosopher, attempts to answer this question in a recent article at Politico entitled “Why Soccer is Un-American.”  

Webb argues that soccer is a “tragic” sport and American do not do tragedy very well.  In fact, Webb writes, the tragic nature of soccer “cuts against the grain of the American ethos.”  Here is a taste of Webb’s piece:

To the American mind, the only time games are supposed to be tragic are when we lose in a sport we love in the international arena. A real sport, like hockey. Otherwise, Americans should be able to make progress in any game, overcoming obstacles, changing rules, buying the best players. That has not happened in soccer because the design of that game has old-world values written all over it: Individuals should not try to stand out from the crowds, one group should not have too many advantages over another, drawing attention to yourself is distasteful, and so on. The tools of your trade shouldn’t be too splashy, either—why use your hands when your feet will do?

Although Americans love games that highlight individual performances—and the more the better—soccer seems designed to minimize their frequency. How many times during a baseball, (real) football or basketball game does someone do something that is utterly transcendent in its expression of skill and strength? Many times. Such moments of beauty are the main reason we find sports so attractive.

In soccer, however, these performances are more like an accident than a natural part of the so-called beautiful game. Fans keep their expectations so low that they are actually surprised, really surprised, when someone kicks the ball in an inhumanly perfect manner. And if the perfect kick does not go in the goal, well, that’s not surprising at all. Soccer thus appeals to the pessimist, the person who wagers that it is better to avoid disappointment than to demand too much joy. In other words, foreigners.

Brooks: Religion and Professional Sports Are Not Reconcilable

David Brooks has joined the chorus of pundits who are writing about the phenomenon that is Jeremy Lin.  He argues that the competitive and ambitious nature of professional sports is incompatible with the great Abrahamic religions.  Here is a taste:

We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.
The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.
He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.
His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.
This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.
But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God. 

Brooks references a 2010 Lin interview with Tim Dalrymple at Patheos in which Lin acknowledged the tension that exists between faith and sports, between winning and playing “selflessly for God.”

I have no doubt that this column will get a lot of attention. If Brooks is right, what are the implications of his argument for Christian athletes and sports programs at schools that take their religious identity seriously? 

As a high school and college athlete (basketball, lacrosse, tennis) and a Christian, Brooks’s article resonated with me.  How often do Christians talk about the tensions between faith and sports?  No one ever told me that sports might cultivate within me a prideful, ambitious, competitive spirit that could be incompatible with my Christianity. If anything, I was told that highly competitive sports was a venue for which I could strengthen my faith.  Yet I cannot ever recall dunking a basketball in a game (please remember, I am 6’8″) and thinking–“I just glorified God.”   I can, however, remember dunking a basketball in a game and thinking–“I am good, I am special, the crowd loves what I just did.”  The more I think about it, the more I must admit that whatever I have learned about the dangers of pride, ambition, and competitiveness did not come from my participation in sports.

Jeremy Lin is the anti-Tim Tebow. Rather than proclaiming a muscular evangelicalism that tries to baptize the pagan origins of professional sports with public prayer (on one knee) and Jesus talk, Lin is doing his best to think critically and thoughtfully about whether or not his deeply held faith commitments are compatible with what qualifies as success in professional basketball. What if Lin quit the NBA because he could not reconcile the two?  Now there’s a thought.

"Upper Blowhardia"

David Brooks insists that Donald Trump is no joke.  In fact, he is representative of the “most subversive ideology in America today.  Donald Trump is the living, walking personification of the Gospel of Success.”  Now only if he would declare America to be a “Christian nation.”

Here is a taste of Brooks’s column:

But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. They are so impressed by their achievements, so often reminded of their own obvious rightness, that every stray thought and synaptic ripple comes bursting out of their mouth fortified by impregnable certitude. When they have achieved this status they have entered the realm of Upper Blowhardia.

These supremely accomplished blowhards offend some but also arouse intense loyalty in others. Their followers enjoy the brassiness of it all. They live vicariously through their hero’s assertiveness. They delight in hearing those obnoxious things that others are only permitted to think.

Thus, there has always been a fan base for the abrasive rich man. There has always been a market for books by people like George Steinbrenner, Ross Perot, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Knight, Howard Stern and George Soros. There has always been a large clump of voters who believe that America could reverse its decline if only a straight-talking, obnoxious blowhard would take control.

And today, apparently, Donald Trump is that man. Trump, currently most famous for telling people that they are fired, has surged toward the top of the presidential primary polls. In one poll, he was in (remote) striking distance in a head-to-head against President Obama. Many people regard Trump as a joke and his popularity a disgrace. But he is actually riding a deep public fantasy: The hunger for the ultimate blowhard who can lead us through dark times. 

Read the rest here.

We’re #12! We’re #12!

Patrick Deneen has a great post at Front Porch Republic about America’s constant quest to be “Number One.” Deneen responds to a recent New York Times column by Thomas Friedman lamenting the fact that America has fallen behind the Indians and the Chinese in a host of important categories that help define world superpowers. He writes:

Friedman doesn’t ask the obvious question: how is it that the children of the “Greatest Generation” became such slackers? How great could they really be if they couldn’t do the one thing needful of any generation, namely, raise their children to be responsible, motivated, hard-working, even self-sacrificial? To what do we attribute their monumental failure?

Might it have something to do with the deeply ingrained idea and evident reality – certainly rampant by the time of the end of the Second World War – that the U.S.A. was and must forever remain Number One? What, after all, is the point of being Number One? If the evidence of the half-century of the post-war is any indication, to be Number One means you have earned the right to be lazy, irresponsible, self-indulgent, short-sighted and hedonistic. You have accumulated the power and the wealth to demand that the world serve you – whether through currency seignorage, energy proctorates that foster clientelism and radicalism, cheap overseas labor that keeps American “consumers” in a permanent condition plastic-addiction, and a popular culture that promotes indolency, irony, disrespect and a general worldview that nothing is to be taken very seriously. If we wonder what has happened, we might start by looking at the “Greatest Generation” and the ways in which they enjoyed the spoils of being Number One – and in which they transmitted that sense of entitlement to their children.

Quote of the Day

From Andrew Bacevich:

Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.

Is Institutional Loyalty an Unnatural Act?

I have been thinking a lot lately about institutional loyalty for a lecture I need to give this fall. Are college professors individual agents who are loyal first and foremost to careers, ambition, and academic disciplines? If so, where does that leave loyalty to one’s institution?

Last week Historiann wrote a very thought-provoking post on this subject. She feels loyal to the historical profession, her colleagues and friends in academia, and her students, but she does not feel loyal to the university that employs her. She offers some very strong examples from her career as to why it is difficult to be loyal to such institutions. Here is a snippet:

Another reason I’m mistrustful of the rhetoric on “loyalty” is that it’s deployed selectively against some faculty more than others. As many of you have suggested in the comments,
women’s extramural job-seeking is understood (and sometimes retaliated against) as unseemly ambition, whereas white men are not only encouraged to pursue other jobs, some are even patronized or scolded for their complacency if they aren’t on the hustle. Given the hostility that women’s ambition is met with, I think Lance is correct that nonwhite faculty also face similar skepticism and anger for seeking out other employment opportunities. This is the presumption of institutions that still see themselves as bastions of (white and male) privilege: We took a chance on you, an outsider in our club! We employed you! How dare you respond by finding another job?

I had a little taste of this my very first year in a tenure track job in my former department. I won a fellowship from the Newberry Library in Chicago. When I marched down the hall to talk to my department Chair about what I assumed would be great news–someone else was buying me a leave term so that I could research my book!–I was lectured that “it was good that [I’d] be gone only one semester, because [I] need[ed] to establish [my]self here.” When I replied that I thought that winning a nationally competitive grantwas a good way to establish myself at that institution, he replied, “I mean with your teaching.” From that point on, the department that employed me pretended that I must be a bad teacher, because they couldn’t suggest that I wasn’t a good enough scholar. That’s the price I paid for taking that grant, a price that eventually got so high that I resigned. The Chair of the department (a different person from the Chair described above) then spread rumors that she knew someone in my new department and that that person had told her that they didn’t really want me. (Which is why they offered me the job? Wev. I was outta there.)

In short, I have never seen an institution operate as though it were loyal to me. Why should I owe it loyalty?

Historiann is not the only one writing about this issue. Over at Brainstorm, Stan Katz has weighed in on the question of institutional loyalty. Here is a taste:

In my academic experience it is pretty frequently the the case that one is asked who could be counted on to assist in some activity that will not produce any self-evident benefit for the volunteer. The question “whom could we ask” has become much more frequently asked over the half-century of my career. I suppose the obvious reason for this is that careerism of a narrow and nasty sort has become the norm among professionals in every area, from law to higher education. While the reward structure in academia has not really changed all that much in the past generation, a narrower understanding of the importance of research has come to dominate our reward and promotion structure. And as the definition of professional success has narrowed, unapologetic self-interest has limited the plausible range of professional desirable options for faculty activity. That is to say that, if you aspire to write a book or article every year, you don’t have time for much else.

This is, I suppose, simply to note what so many commentators have observed, that university faculty are more and more single-mindedly committed to their own professional welfare to the exclusion of just about everything else—including the welfare of the institutions that employ them. I am old enough to realize that there probably never was a golden age in which professors were good institutional citizens first and individual professionals second, but I do remember times in which, at least, community loyalty was not considered an unnatural act. Them days are, I realize, gone forever—and for a great many, very complicated reasons.

Nevertheless, the anomic condition of the contemporary academy bothers me, and I am sure it worries some of you. If so, you are “the usual suspects.” You are the people who agree to join the committees whose tasks seem tangential to the mainstream of professional activity within our universities. You are especially the volunteers for community-based activities. You are the people who serve local, regional, and national activities that are not professionally oriented. You are the people who make time for the members of our institutional communities who are in distress and need help, even if that help is only a shoulder to cry on. You are the people who speak truth to power. You are those who put being civil above being right….

I can’t imagine that Katz would disagree with Historiann’s horror stories about the institutions where she has worked and I am guessing that Historiann is willing to concede that the “anomic condition” of academia can at times be harmful to the education mission of a college or university. Great posts!

In the end, I find myself more attracted to Katz’s angle on this issue. If I learned anything in graduate school it is that ambition and self-interest are at the heart of academia. I have developed some good friendships in the academy and am loyal to my discipline, but I think I would be very lonely in my profession if I could not practice my trade at a place that had a mission that was worthy of my loyalty. I know the job market is tough and you need to take the jobs that are out there, but I would probably leave the academy before I took a job at a place that was not worthy of my loyalty. I know that within the culture of academia this idea sounds outrageous, but who says we all must conform to the cultural academia?

Why Denmark Sounds Like A Nice Place to Live

Alyce Mckenzie, a professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University), shares with us (at the Faith Forward blog) the story of her son’s return to suburban Dallas after spending a semester in Copenhagen.

McKenzie wonders how the people of Denmark can live in a relatively secular society and still be so content and stress-free. Here is a taste:

My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago from a semester spent in Copenhagen, on a study abroad program sponsored by Southern Methodist University…Back in our suburban Dallas home, his American father grilled steaks on the patio and I wondered how long it would take him to get bored with suburban Texas life after life in Copenhagen.

Our convenience oriented, car-driven culture in suburban Texas is a far cry from life in Denmark — which, according to my recently returned raconteur, features some of the following: riding a bike or walking just about everywhere. having lights that go on and off automatically, recycling all glass bottles, drinking tap water, being able to let your baby in the best baby strollers bask in the sun a bit while you go in and pick up a few groceries for tonight’s meal, beautiful public spaces, green parks where people enjoy leisure time, high-speed and clean trains, not being obsessed with work to the point that family and leisure are devalued, and, by all accounts, a happiness factor that exceeds ours…

…In his 2008 book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Tell us about Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman (who lived in Denmark from 2005-2006) seeks to account for the fact that Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal. His book is, in part, an attempt to counter conservative Christian pundits (Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, William Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Weyrich) who swear that a society without God is hell on earth. No, says Zuckerman, based on his experience in Scandinavia. Life in an irreligious democracy can actually be quite pleasant and civil. Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies.

…Zuckerman seeks to discover the “unique contours of the world views of secular men and women who live their lives without a strong religious orientation.” Many are “cultural Lutherans,” who have their children baptized and confirmed and who marry in the church because it is the traditional “thing to do.” But they tend to operate out of a rational, scientific worldview, not invested in questions of the holiness of the Bible, the reality of the resurrection, or the existence of heaven or hell.

How, wonders Zuckerman, do they deal with questions about the meaning of life and the approach of death? His basic findings are that Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world. They are more interested in their family, home, bikes, careers, weather, and favorite British or Brazilian soccer players than questions of the meaning of life and the existence of heaven and hell. Many of the people he interviewed did not seem fearful about the fact of physical death or particularly curious about whether it was the end of life or if there was an afterlife…

It is interesting to see one’ own life (in the context of one’s culture) through the lens of someone with recent, firsthand experience of another cultural context. I know that I am driven by the Protestant work ethic in my vocation as a Professor of Preaching, always striving to learn more and speak more effectively and teach others to do the same. I spend just about all my time thinking about the meaning of life and the significance of the Bible and better ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I derive meaning, joy and purpose from my faith. But it’s hard for me to look up from my list of things to do long enough to live in the moment or bask in relationships. It’s hard for me to shift my focus from goals to gratitude for the gift of life in the here and now….

Living in Denmark has had an impact on my son. I predict that he will seek a life that is more communal and relational than the life of individual-achievement-at-all-costs that is a popular version (or perversion) of the American Dream…

Garrison Keillor on Stephen Ambrose’s Plagiarism

We blogged about this sad story last weeks. You may recall that an article in The New Yorker revealed that the late historian Stephen Ambrose had lied about his working relationship with Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Now Garrison Keillor weighs in on this case with his usual blend of criticism and humor. Here is a taste:

When the story came out in The New Yorker last week, I felt ill. I admired the man. I loved “Citizen Soldiers,” about the Battle of the Bulge. He was a deservedly best-selling historian (“D-Day,” “Band of Brothers”), the prolific author of books on Lewis and Clark, George A. Custer, the transcontinental railroad, the Civil War, biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon: Why did the gentleman need to stoop to such a pitiful petty lie? And why did he lift passages from other writers and use them without quotation marks? Did someone make fun of his lack of erudition, growing up in Whitewater, Wisconsin? Did he feel inferior to his doctor dad? A longtime smoker (who died of lung cancer in 2002), maybe Mr. Ambrose was given to tempting fate and playing with fire.

Plagiarism is suicide. It stems from envy, I suppose, or in Ambrose’s case, the rush to produce books in rapid succession, but no matter, it’s a stain that peroxide won’t lift out. All your hard work over a lifetime, blighted by the word “plagiarism” every time somebody writes about you. It’s in the third or fourth graph of your obituary, a splotch on your escutcheon.

Here, dear reader, I must disclose that I have repeatedly lied about my closeness to General Eisenhower and have claimed more than once to have been his aide aboard the cruiser Memphis where he observed the D-Day landing from the porthole of his cabin where he was ensconced with Marlene Dietrich, sipping champagne, as I sat outside the door strumming “Lili Marlene” on a HarmonyTone F-4 mandolin.

Years later, an eagle-eyed reader blew the whistle, pointing out that HarmonyTone’s F-4 mandolin was not manufactured until 1947. Also, that I was 2 years old at the time of D-Day. Also, that Marlene Dietrich was in Hawaii at the time, canoodling with John F. Kennedy.

Luckily for me, the exposé came out on the very day that President Nixon resigned, and so it got buried in the back pages, along with the embarrassing fact that my book, “Sailing With the General,” contained large swatches (unattributed) of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Thankfully, these embarrassing disclosures never got in the way of my friendship with President Eisenhower, and he and I golfed many, many rounds together, at Augusta and Burning Man and Plum Creek, with George S. Patton and Walter (Old Iron Pants) Cronkite, the memory of which the smell of plum blossoms brings back with startling clarity.

Did Stephen Ambrose Actually Interview Eisenhower?

Yes, but they were not extensive as Ambrose has led us to believe in his many books on the president. In a New Yorker essay titled “Channelling Ike,” Richard Rayner explains how Ambrose only met with Eisenhower three times. Ambrose claimed he spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours with him. Here is a taste of Rayner’s piece:

…Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.

“I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography,” Ambrose said in a C-SPAN interview in 1994. In another interview, he added, “I thought I had flown to the moon.”

In Ambrose’s oft-repeated telling of the tale, Eisenhower contacted him after reading his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s chief of staff. “I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes,” Ambrose told C-SPAN. “I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”

Last November, Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel that celebrated Ambrose’s writings, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of his two-volume Eisenhower biography, a work that is still regarded as the standard. Rives was looking for items to put on display at the event when he came across previously unpublished source materials that debunk the Boswellian tale that Ambrose loved to tell.

In a letter dated September 10, 1964, Ambrose, having recently joined a team of historians at Johns Hopkins who were preparing Eisenhower’s papers for publication, wrote to the former President, introducing himself: “For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing.” He enclosed two books, one the biography of Halleck. About a month later, on October 15th, Ambrose sent another letter. “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II,” he wrote. “I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”

The two men finally met two months later, on December 14th, when Ambrose’s boss, Dr. Alfred Chandler, took him to Gettysburg. “I want the General to meet Dr. Ambrose,” Chandler wrote in a letter to Eisenhower’s office.

Rives was interested to discover that, contrary to Ambrose’s claims, Eisenhower never approached him to write his biography. By telephone the other day from his office in Abilene, Rives said, “And, I’m sorry to say, these weren’t the only problems.”

Access to Eisenhower in his retirement years was tightly controlled and his activities were documented by his staff, particularly by his executive assistant, Brigadier General Robert L. Schulz, who kept meticulous records of his boss’s schedule and telephone calls (now part of the Abilene archive). These records show that Eisenhower saw Ambrose only three times, for a total of less than five hours. The two men were never alone together. The footnotes to Ambrose’s first big Eisenhower book, “The Supreme Commander,” published in 1970, cite nine interview dates; seven of these conflict with the record. On October 7, 1965, when Ambrose claimed that he was interviewing Eisenhower at Gettysburg, Ike was travelling from Abilene to Kansas City. On December 7, 1965, another of the purported interview dates, Eisenhower was at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., and saw only General Arthur Nevins, his neighbor and farm manager; George Allen, a golf and bridge pal; and Gordon Moore, his brother-in-law. He dined that evening with his son, John Eisenhower. On October 5, 1967, rather than hobnobbing with his young biographer, Eisenhower met with General Lucius D. Clay, the former military governor of occupied Germany and a close friend, and, after Clay left, he talked politics over the phone with Walter Cronkite and called his attorney to discuss a trust fund for his grandchildren. The former President was very busy that day, but he didn’t meet with Stephen Ambrose. On October 21, 1967, another footnoted Gettysburg date, Eisenhower was on vacation at Augusta National Golf Club. He was still there on October 27th, when Ambrose claims that he again interviewed his subject in Gettysburg.

Is it possible that Ambrose met with Eisenhower outside office hours? John Eisenhower told Rives that such meetings never happened: “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.” John Eisenhower, who is now eighty-seven, liked Ambrose, and he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.

Ambrose continued to draw on his supposed Eisenhower interviews in subsequent books, including the two-volume biography, although in the later footnotes the specific dates were replaced with vaguer notations, such as “Interview with DDE.” As the citations grew more nebulous, the range of subjects that the interviews allegedly covered grew wider: the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on…

Victor Davis Hanson on What Ails Us

Whatever you think about Victor Davis Hanson, he is certainly provocative and often right. His recent column is a scathing critique on American culture and I think he is right about much of what he says:

We want all the dividends of industrial society, but an 18th century wilderness at the same time. So the in-the-know people demand cheap, plentiful, and tasty food, but worry more about a three-inch fish than the farmers and farm workers who keep us alive one more day — and so divert fresh water out into the bay to keep the delta smelt alive. (Oh, I know the Gorist logic: the smelt is a canary in the mine; when he can’t get enough oxygen, then we won’t be able to drink soon.” Sorry, I suggest that communities whose treated sewage goes into the bay begin using some sort of organic toilets rather than the old flush models.)

To drive through downtown Santa Barbara is to count the amazing variety of Volvo, Mercedes, Lexus, and BMW SUVs — and wonder where the gasoline comes from, as off-shore drilling declines. You get the picture — our top echelons have become quite prissy. The redwood deck is beloved, not the falling coast redwood tree; kitchen granite counters are de rigueur, not the blasting at the top of the granite mountain; the Prius is a badge of honor, not the chemical plant that makes its batteries; we now like stainless steel frigs, but hate steel’s coke, and iron ore, and electricity lines; arugula is tasty, not the canal that brings water 400 miles to irrigate it; I support teacher unions and -studies courses in the public schools, but not with my Ivy-League bound children.

Read the entire piece here.

Andy Catlett, Philip Vickers Fithian, and Place

This morning I finished Wendell Berry’s Andy Catlett: Early Travels. (You can read my previous post on this novel here). It is a short, moving and simple story of a nine-year old boy developing an affection for a place that will last throughout his lifetime. (By mere coincidence, the novel ends on New Years Day, 1943).

What I love about Berry is how he completely inverts the common narrative of how a young boy “comes of age” in America. If you are looking for a Ben Franklin or Horatio Alger “coming of age” story here, you will not find it. How refreshing!

When Andy Catlett “travels” (ten miles by bus) he goes from his parents’ house in Hargrave (which Berry describes as a town “with the modern ambition to be what it was not”) to Port William. Andy does not “find himself,” like Benjamin Franklin did when he left Puritan Boston for Philadelphia, in a big city filled with opportunities and possibilities. Instead, he “finds himself” in the context of a place–a community with no real “prospects,” but a community nonetheless. Andy “comes of age” in a place that, by the standards of modern progress, is on the way out. There is no future in Port William. But rather than rejecting the limits that such a rural and agricultural town places on his life, Andy embraces those limits and finds real happiness in Port William. This is a place in which he can invest himself.

As I read Andy Catlett, I could not help but think about the eighteenth-century “coming of age” of Philip Vickers Fithian. Though Fithian was a bit more ambitious than young Andy, he also maintained a deep connection to his “beloved Cohansie,” the small Delaware Bay communities nestled along the Cohansey River in what today is Cumberland County, New Jersey.

Here are a few passages from The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Philip Vickers Fithian loved springtime on the Cohansey. As winter bid its farewell to the village along the river, Philip rejoiced in the morning sounds of birds keeping “a continual round of engaging music.” His soul was refreshed by the “feathery choir” of the bluebirds singing their “melody to God of nature on account of the approaching spring.” Even the frogs on the riverbank caught his attention as they filled the evening air “with their shrill and deafening voices.” From his bedchamber window Philip could see peach, apple, and cherry trees coming to life on his family’s farm. “The Spring now displays its gaiety and exalted grandeur in bloom and pride,” he wrote in May 1767; “the Apple and the Cherry trees are in the extremity of their glory, and the Trees of the wood, arraying themselves in green.” Delaware Bay’s southwesterly breezes felt fresh and warm. Indeed, spring was the time of year when Philip reflected most intently on the virtues of home.

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet. Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet. He was a patriot it he classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land.

As he grew in intellect and learning and, as we will see, was exposed to a kind of life outside of Cohansey that few of his neighbors and none of his ancestors had ever experienced, the beckoning of home would become that much greater. As a child of the Enlightenment and one of the region’s first native-born college graduates, Philip could have easily transcended–culturally, geographically, intellectually–Cohansey’s warm confines. However, he also knew that his pursuit of self-betterment was held in check by what Karl Marx would later describe as “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” In an eighteenth-century world where young people started to believe that self-improvement was possible, Philip realized that the limits imposed by the past anchored him and had just as much impact on who he was and what he would become as did the optimism of the Enlightenment stream from which he would drink so deeply.

William Moraley: "Coming to America"

Who is William Moraley and why is he coming to America?

As the editors of Moraley’s memoir, Susan Klepp and Billy Smith write: “William Moraley ventured from England to the colonies in 1729 as an indentured servant, worked in various capacities, rambled about the countryside on foot, and mingled with white and black bondspeople, labor artisans, Indians, and other common folk.” Moraley’s memoir is a morality tale about failure in eighteenth-century British America. After spending five years in America, he returned to England and wrote The Infortunate: or the Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley. Klepp and Smith have published the memoir with a nice editor’s introduction. The book is now in its second edition with Penn State University Press.

I have been teaching Moraley in my Colonial America course for about eight years now. Since many of my students read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in my U.S. Survey course, they are familiar with the memoir genre. (One of the advantages of teaching at a small liberal arts college is that most history majors who take my colonial course also had me as a professor in their introductory survey course so I can assume most of them have read Franklin). Both Franklin and Moraley arrived in the Delaware Valley in the 1720s, but only one of them “made it.” Moraley did not experiences the so-called “American dream” and thus we know virtually nothing about him. After all, we ambitious and self-improving Americans would not look highly on a guy who openly admits that “I neglected to improve my Talents, always preferring the present Time to the future; so that all these Advantages were bestow’d on me to no Purpose.” Franklin he was not.

I love comparing Franklin and Moraley in class because it leads to a great discussion about who was more representative of early eighteenth-century immigrants to the Delaware Valley. My students and I wonder together about why Americans do not deal very well with failure. This time around several of my students admitted that they were frustrated with Moraley because he was not living up to their standards of self-improvement. I asked them why this was the case. Was there something in the American psyche that cannot accept failure? And how do they reconcile their disgust for Moraley with their theological belief (most of my students are Christians) that we are all sinners who doomed to failure? We all prefer Ben Franklin or Philip Vickers Fithian to Moraley.

While Franklin’s Autobiography became a book that defined the American character, Moraley was a bungler–a guy who did not take advantage of what the colonies offered him and ended up wandering in the woods of New Jersey getting “treed” by a panther.

Moraley is the stuff of which good folk music is made. He is on a “Down Bound Train” where he experiences “Hard Times” in this “American Land.” (OK–these are all Springsteen songs or covers, but I am sure that there are Seeger and Guthrie songs that would fit the bill. I just don’t have the time right now to look them up). In some ways, he is an eighteenth-century Tom Joad.

This connection with the American folk music tradition prompted me in class the other day to challenge the students to write a folk song about Moraley. Only one student took me up on the offer. Sarah Plumadore, a music major and history minor, creatively changed the lyrics of Neil Diamond’s classic “Coming to America” to better reflect the experience of Moraley. Here is her Moraley-inspired version of “Coming to America” (or perhaps “Lost in Philadelphia” might be more appropriate):

Far
He’s been travelin’ far
Across the sea
But not beyond the empire

Free
Moraley wants to be free
Not indentured
But improved as can be

He took a boat he walked the trail
He’s lost in Philadephia
He left town to fix a watch
Now he hides from panther’s claws

Free, time served, now he’s on his way
And Moraley is now to be wed
But it’s taken away
It’s taken away

Home, to return to a familiar place
He cleans clocks, he gets the fare
Creditors give him chase
To Burlington does he race

Next, he goes to Maryland
But on the way a snake finds him
Then it’s back to Burlington
Then a ship bound for England

On the boat he is the cook
They dock in Ireland
Moraley journeys to Newburn
He reunited with his family

But there’s lack of opportunity
His mother dies tragically
From debts he’s still not free
The moral of this tale, you see
We can’t all like Franklin be

Great work, Sarah! I encourage my readers to go listen to Diamond’s version and replace the lyrics with Sarah’s new words.

Dr. Seuss and Modern America

I was lecturing in my U.S. survey class today on the social consequences of economic nationalism in the early American republic. I wanted the students to see that the United States’ attempt at developing a sense of nationalism in the wake of the War of 1812 led to improvements in infrastructure such as roads, canals, etc… that profoundly changed the lives of ordinary people. We discussed the way the subdivision of tasks undermined the master craftsman and how roads helped people to see themselves as participants in a community that transcended their local bounds. We talked about the growing class-consciousness among Irish immigrant canal-workers and the life-changing consumer habits of rural farmers with access to markets.

During the lecture I referenced an essay I wrote a few years ago on the liberal cosmopolitanism of Theodore Giesel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. Seuss’s writings challenge kids to think beyond the local. In books like Oh the Places You’ll Go or McElligott’s Pool he asks young people to imagine the world beyond home. I argue that Seuss, like the industrialists and economic improvers of the early 19th century, have contributed to the destruction of an older Jeffersonian vision of America rooted in place, agriculture and local community. (Ironically, many of those who supported this destruction of place in the early 19th century claimed the mantle of Jeffersonianism).

A few students have asked me about the piece, so I have linked to it here.

Of course I explored many of these themes in the eighteenth-century in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

In Defense of the Great Books

It was a summer morning sometime between sixth and seventh grade. I woke up and heard an adult voice in the kitchen. It was not my Dad. The voice was familiar, but I could not place it. I threw on some clothes and made my way down the stairs to the kitchen only to find my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Fischer, sitting at the table with my Mom. The table was filled with opened boxes of cereal, a carton of milk, half-eaten bowls of Rice Krispies , and crumbs from pieces of toast. Clearly my brothers had already passed through for breakfast. My Mom was trying to calm my newly born sister and at the same time carry on a civil conversation with Mr. Fischer. He was dressed in a suit and tie with a briefcase full of brochures. I was somewhat embarrassed as I greeted my former teacher. It was obvious that I had just rolled out of bed. I was also a bit irritated that my school world and summer world had collided in the family kitchen.

As it turns out, Mr. Fischer was selling World Book encyclopedias and seemed to be a making a rather compelling sales pitch. Later my Mom would say that she only bought the encyclopedias to get Mr. Fischer out of the house, but I knew that that was not the whole story. Though we were a working-class family, my mother was always concerned about the intellectual growth of her kids (although she would not have put it that way).

My brothers and I devoured our World Book encyclopedias. We would not only use them for school reports and papers, but we often read them for fun. To this day, more than thirty volumes, with their brown and black covers, still sit on my parent’s bookshelf.

I thought about my Mom and the World Book encyclopedia today when I read W.A. Pannapacker’s essay “Confessions of Middlebrow Professor.” Though he was also raised in a working-class home, Pannapaker’s upbringing seemed to be a lot more cultured mine. But I can relate to his parents’ concern that he have access to great ideas. In his case, it was a 54 volume set of the “Great Books of the Western World.” Pannapacker reminds us that the Great Books series, edited by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, were popular among the post-World War II rising middle class. They served as “expressions of hope for many people who had historically not had access to higher education.” I can’t help but think, at some level, this may have been what my mother had in mind when she bought us our World Books. Both the Great Books collection and the World Book encyclopedia were visible signs–on the bookshelf for all to see– of social mobility.

The Great Books are often criticized for being racist and sexist. This is certainly a legitimate criticism. I am sure a close reading of my parent’s World Book encyclopedia would reveal similar problems. Yet, call me nostalgic or overly conservative, but I agree with Pannapacker that there may still be some worth in recovering parts of the world in which the Great Books were first published. Pannapacker writes (the mention of “Jacoby” is a reference to Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason):

The Great Books—along with all those Time-Life series—were often “purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing,” Jacoby writes. They represented an old American belief—now endangered—that “anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself.”

What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment —as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm.

For all their shortcomings, the Great Books—along with many other varieties of middlebrow culture—reflected a time when the liberal arts commanded more respect. They were thought to have practical value as a remedy for parochialism, bigotry, social isolation, fanaticism, and political and economic exploitation. The Great Books had a narrower conception of “greatness” than we might like today, but their foundational ideals were radically egalitarian and proudly intellectual.


I have read several of the works in the “Great Books” collection, but I have always wanted to read them through in a systematic way. Perhaps someday this will happen. But in the meantime, does anyone have a 54 volume set that want to sell me?