Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Exorcising toxic Trump: An intentional alternative in our back yard?

Hancock Shaker Village — photo by Massachusetts Office of Tourism, used under Creative Commons License

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 9, 2020 by William P. Densmore

I’ve been thinking a lot about furniture lately as my sisters and I assess the provenance and best disposition of fine furniture in our parents’ Worcester home. We’re learning that “dark furniture” isn’t very valuable anymore. Kind of like the stock market after today, and quite out of our individual control so not to worry. But thinking about furniture and value inevitable leads to the mass-market tag line for the Shakers furniture. Excellent, simple, stripped of vanity and excess — furniture.

But it is not Shaker furniture on my mind for tonight. Rather, I wish to digress in perhaps contrarian fashion to a set of difference considerations about the Shakers — their status as the longest running intentional community in America — an effort at utopia which has tested a set of values in many respects relevant not only to contemporary American society but as well perhaps to some of the attributes of the culture which occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Fifteen years ago I spent six months working at Hancock Shaker Village. Like most people, I knew about furniture and celibacy and that was about it. I learned somewhat more, but ever since I’ve wanted to spend a chunk of time digging into Shaker values and practices.  This talk is the result and it stems from sit-down interviews last month with five Shaker experts — and an admittedly fast literature review.

What I will highlight, using with attribution the words of my interviewees as well as published authors is this: The Shakers can teach our contemporary politicians, and maybe Donald Trump, much about gender equity, caring for “others,” housing and economic security and the management of dissent. Seventy-five years before emancipation, and 150 years before suffrage, Shakers were already practicing social, sexual, economic and spiritual equality. For the most part, the Shakers just lived their politics, although in 1852, Shaker elder Frederick Evans was proselytizing that women should have the right to vote.

There are multiple sources — from Wikipedia to scholarly volumes, to fill in the basic Shaker history so I’ll rewrite to a few sentences. Factory worker “Mother” Ann Lee and her husband arrive near Albany, N.Y., in 1774 from Manchester, England and after several frustrating years begin to attract converts to her Protestant-offshoot idea of a community that sees women as a natural representation of God after the death of Jesus. The three tenets: celibacy, confession and community. At its peak, the Shaker movement involved 6,000 members and followers at 19 sites from Kentucky east to Maine; only two (or is it three) members remain — at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Past Is Never Dead: On intergenerational trauma

Presented to the Club on Monday evening, January 13, 2020 by Erik Bruun

1. The Damnedest Thing I Ever Saw

Seventy years ago my grandfather, Henry Ashton Crosby, was sitting in a New York City subway. He had recently returned to the United States after serving as a front-line officer during World War II. He was a gracious and polite man, so when an elderly woman got into the crowded subway car, he stood up to offer his seat. Just then another man scooted behind him to take the seat. My grandfather snapped.

He swung around, picked the man up and threw him through the subway window, smashing glass everywhere. The police arrived. After learning that he was a combat veteran, they let him go.

“That sort of thing used to happen all the time after the war,” my stepfather Player Crosby explained to me when I was a boy, delighted to have such chivalry in my family. I mean, what a grandfather!

Two overriding memories come to mind when I recall him.

One was his sparkling eyes. They absolutely lit up when he saw me after an extended absence as he shook my hand firmly and vigorously. He looked at me as if I was the most exciting person he could imagine seeing at that moment. It left such an impression that I try to mimic his enthusiasm when I see young people who I have not seen for a while.

This was a fantastic trait that all six of his children inherited. When you were in his presence you felt as if you were not just seen, but a source of complete delight. Your life felt special. He loved people and people loved him, as the hundreds who attended his standing-room-only funeral when he died at the age of 87 would attest.

The second memory was as a 10-year-old visiting him on summer vacation in Franconia, New Hampshire. I cannot remember what prompted it, but we were on the porch and he started talking about a patrol he led on the Western Front during World War II.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Across the bridge: A personal reflection



Presented to the Club on Monday, February 10, 2020 by Richard L. Floyd

We will come to the bridge in my title in due time, but it is a later piece of the story I want to tell tonight, so I will begin with an important book I read last summer while I was filling in as a guest preacher for my daughter during her maternity leave.

The book was Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. My pastor had given it to me the year before, but I hadn’t got around to reading it. It was written in 1949, which happens to be the year I was born, and it came out right before the civil rights movement really got moving in the 1950’s.

Howard Thurman, a black minister and scholar, was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He had traveled to India and had met Mahatma Gandhi. When Thurman asked Gandhi what message he should take back to the United States, Gandhi said he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and he famously remarked “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman did come back with that message about non-violent resistance, and became one of the influences on one of his students, Martin Luther King, who did his doctorate at Boston University. And the Civil Rights movement did in fact employ a variety of the tactics of nonviolent resistance, such as sit-ins, bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, marches, and mass demonstrations.

In his book, Howard Thurman draws comparisons between the socio-political world that Jesus grew up in under Roman Occupation, and the American South during the Jim Crow era. In both cases powerful majorities disinherited powerless minorities through fear and the threat of violence. The regular lynching in Howard Thurman’s day and the regular crucifixions of Jesus’s day were both designed to instill terror in the disinherited minority and keep them in their place.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The winter before the war in Washington: The Civil War era recollections of Henry Laurens Dawes


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Henry Laurens Dawes

This paper was presented to the Club by Henry Laurens Dawes on Monday evening, November 22, 1886, at a meeting of the Club he hosted at his home in Pittsfield, Dawes presented this paper about events in Washington, D.C. between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November, 1860 and his inauguration in March, 1861. 

Dawes (1816-1903) was a founding member of the Monday Evening Club in 1869 and remained a member until his death, hosting and presenting papers often.

As Dawes notes in the paper itself, “some of the incidents of those days [were] not recorded in the history of the time and … will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.” In this paper Dawes presents many details that only an eyewitness and participant could know.

According to notes on the manuscript, Dawes later presented this paper to the Wednesday Morning Club[1] (also of Pittsfield) on November 28, 1886; to the Social Senior Club of Ware, Mass. on November 20, 1888, and at a public meeting at South Congregational Church in Pittsfield on Saturday, May 10, 1890.

Judging by the manuscript (a copy which was obtained from the National Archives where the original is among its holdings of Dawes’s papers), for these subsequent presentations, Dawes made small edits and appears to have inserted some new passages. In transcribing the paper, we have generally included these changes, but have retained some passages that Dawes bracketed —‘ he appears to have intended to skip over for brevity. In other instances Dawes made changes for modesty — for example, changing “I” to “one of the committee” or the like. In those cases we’ve generally retained the original first person version. Because of these changes and interpolations made over time this final version differs somewhat from the original presentation to the Monday Evening Club.

The first half of this paper was published, under the same title, in the Atlantic Monthly of August, 1893. The text of that article very closely follows the manuscript text we have used here. A small portion of this article has been used here to fill in a gap where one or two pages of the original manuscript are missing. The second half is published here for the first time.

For the reader’s convenience we have added a few subheadlines not found in the original manuscript. For some events, dates have been added in brackets to help illuminate the timeline. A few spelling corrections and punctuation and capitalization changes have been made for clarity.

Thanks to Megan Hoffenberg for her transcription of the manuscript.


Looking back over the graves of more than a million brave men who, on the one side or the other, laid down their lives in the struggle for mastery which began at Washington in the winter of 1860-61, the recollection of the flippancy and air of lightness and almost sportiveness with which it was entered upon fills me with a shiver of amazement. How great things were trifled with as if they were playthings and great stakes were played for as boys play for pennies, no one could now, in the lurid light of subsequent events, ever be made to believe, had not his own eyes been the witness. Much that happened would have been impossible but for the impenetrable veil which shut out the future. What seemed to us before whose eyes they were enacted as absurdities, arrant nonsense, and which it is difficult to recall after thirty-five years, with a sober face, were in truth the beginnings of Andersonville and Gettysburg and the assasination of Lincoln. I sometimes think it almost wicked to hold up their ludicrous side to public gaze, in the light of such a terrible realization. It is with no purpose to belittle the great events, the beginnings of which I saw that winter, that I venture, for your entertainment if not instruction, to present some of the incidents of those days not recorded in the history of the time and which will soon be beyond recall if left alone to the memory of contemporaries and participants.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Cleveland Amory: The Hub of the Universe



Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1999. Roger was, for many years, the associate editor of The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield's daily newspaper. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in 1973, and died in 2008 at the age of 88, having been a member of the Club since 1950. We are indebted to Roger's daughter, Wendy Lamme, for a treasure trove of Roger's Monday Evening Club papers. Photo of Cleveland Amory by Ron Bull for the Toronto Star, used under Toronto Star Photograph Archive License.

The genesis of this paper, such as it is, was a lengthy obituary that appeared in The New York Times shortly before this past Christmas. Its subject was Cleveland Amory, a writer and editor whose tireless work in behalf of animal rights over recent decades had produced several best-selling books and an impressive body of state and federal human legislation.

But before becoming an animal activist in middle age, Cleveland Amory was a social historian, and a very good one at that. His first three books. The Proper Bostonians (published just 50 years ago [1947]), The Last Resorts, and Who Killed Society? were beautifully researched accounts of the mores and foibles of the American upper crust before it began crumbling under the pressure of the mass media and increasing social mobility.

And before that, Amory was an undergraduate at Harvard where – like a number of luminaries before him, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’04 – he was president of the Harvard Crimson, the undergraduate daily newspaper. In that role he was something of a mentor to me, who was admitted to the staff as a sophomore when Amory was a senior. He taught me a good deal more about newspapering that I could have learned from any school of journalism.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Who says life has to be fair? The rise and fall of broadcasting’s Fairness Doctrine



Presented to the Club on Monday evening, January 14, 2019, by Brad Spear

The headline in the Saturday, December 22 Washington Post article said it all, “‘This Is Tyranny of Talk Radio Hosts, Right? ‘: Limbaugh and Coulter Blamed for Trump’s Shutdown of Portions of the Federal Government.” Here we are 23 days later, and the “partial shutdown” of the federal government continues.

Two days before, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and conservative podcaster Ann Coulter separately ridiculed the President over a compromise that had been reached with Senate Democrats to avoid a government shutdown by partially funding the construction of a wall at the Mexico-US border. Upon hearing the ridicule, Mr. Trump suddenly reversed his position, thereby closing the federal government on Friday, December 21. According to the Post article, CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin was quoted as saying, the reason for the President’s reversal of position was because Limbaugh and Coulter “had questioned his manhood.”

Have these two pillars of right-wing talk radio always had such sway over the nation’s affairs? The answer is “no;” at least not until the repeal in 1987 of a longtime tenant of American broadcasting: the Federal Communications Commission’s “Fairness Doctrine.”

Monday, March 11, 2019

The most hated man in America



Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 4, 2019 by Martin C. Langeveld

During much of the time between the two World Wars, if you had asked an average person on the street, or the average journalistic pundit, who they considered to be the most hated person in America, ranking high among the possible answers would have been the name of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll. But why?

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the playboy scion of a Philadelphia family of beer brewers with German roots, was born in 1893. After the Wright brothers set up their first school for airplane pilots, at Huffman Prairie near their home base of Dayton, Ohio, Grover enrolled in April, 1912 and became one of the first 119 people who learned to fly there. Once proficient, he purchased from the Wrights a 40-horsepower Model B flyer, for the sum of $5,625 (nearly $150,000 in 2019 dollars). (The young man, just 18 years old and a student at the University of Pennsylvania, had been receiving a $5,000 allowance annually since he was 15.) The Model B was the first Wright plane to have wheels, enabling it to take off on its own rather than with the catapult system used until then.

Within a few months, Grover was entertaining large crowds in Philadelphia by making exhibition flights. At the time, flying was quite a hazardous pursuit. In 1910, the Wright Brothers had assembled a team of nine expert exhibition pilots to demonstrate their planes around the country — by the end of 1912, six of the nine had been killed in airplane crashes. But Grover was not only fearless but highly proficient. While still working to qualify for a pilot’s license in the spring of 1912, he was offering rides to friends, buzzing crowds, reaching altitudes of 2,000 feet, and staying aloft as long as 34 minutes. That summer, with a passenger on board, he flew from the suburban air field to Philadelphia’s downtown City Hall, circled the statue of William Penn atop its dome three times, and flew low over a westbound train for 22 blocks before revving his engine and passing it. In August, he flew from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, reaching altitudes over 7,000 feet, the first flight between the two cities. After more flights, in September, just five months after his first lessons, Grover passed the necessary trials and was awarded a pilot’s license. He was the 169th person in the U. S. ever to receive one.