Remembering Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died today, October 7, 1849 in Baltimore.  He was 40 years old.

My first introduction to Poe was “The Tell- Tale Heart”.  I think was in maybe the 5th or 6th grade when the teacher read it to us.  I found it frightening.  And then there were his other storied like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his very bad poetry.  I had always thought he was from Richmond – or maybe Baltimore, but have since learned he actually lived all over and went to school both at the University of Virginia and West Point.  After I moved to Boston, I found out that he had been born there.  I went looking for the tiny plaque in an alley honoring him.  There was also a reference in one of Linda Fairstein’s mysteries to the Poe cabin in the Bronx which is how I first learned of his New York connection.  So lots and lots of places claim him and there are at least three Poe historical sites:  Richmond, Baltimore and the Bronx.

But he and Boston had a terrible relationship.  According to the New York Times

Poe sneered at the city’s luminaries. Riffing off the Frog Pond in the Boston Common, Poe called the local swells “Frogpondians,” their moralistic works sounding like the croaking of so many frogs. As for residents here, they “have no soul,” he said. “Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”

The Boston Globe explains that his relationship with “…with the city’s literary elite was famously tense…”

But now Boston has joined Baltimore, Richmond and New York with a tribute to Poe.  The New York Times quotes Boston’s Mayor

“It’s time that Poe, whose hometown was Boston, be honored for his connection to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The Times describes the statue

Now the city is burying the hatchet, and not in Poe’s back. On Sunday [October 5], civic and literary folk, including Robert Pinsky, a former national poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, are to unveil a bronze statue of Poe near the Boston Common and, they hope, usher in an era of reconciliation.

The statue captures the writer in a purposeful stride, his cape billowing out to his left. On his right is an outsize raven, uncoiling for flight. Poe is toting a suitcase so overpacked that various manuscripts — “The Tell-Tale Heart” among them — are spilling out. Also popping out is a heart.

He is heading toward the house, two blocks away, where his parents lived around the time he was born, though it has since been razed.

So the only person to write a poem that became the name of a football team, the Baltimore Ravens, has finally been honored in the city of his birth.  I wonder what Poe would make of it.

Photograph:  DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

 

 

 

President Harrison’s new medical diagnosis

William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, served one month.  I learned in school that he gave a very long inaugural address, caught pneumonia, and died.  I think this is what most people know about him.  Oh, there is that slogan “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too”.  Harrison , while governor of the Indiana Territory, commanded troops that repulsed a raid by Chief Tecumseh.  According to his biography on the White House website

…In 1801 he became Governor of the Indiana Territory, serving 12 years.

His prime task as governor was to obtain title to Indian lands so settlers could press forward into the wilderness. When the Indians retaliated, Harrison was responsible for defending the settlements.

The threat against settlers became serious in 1809. An eloquent and energetic chieftain, Tecumseh, with his religious brother, the Prophet, began to strengthen an Indian confederation to prevent further encroachment. In 1811 Harrison received permission to attack the confederacy.

While Tecumseh was away seeking more allies, Harrison led about a thousand men toward the Prophet’s town. Suddenly, before dawn on November 7, the Indians attacked his camp on Tippecanoe River. After heavy fighting, Harrison repulsed them, but suffered 190 dead and wounded.

The Battle of Tippecanoe, upon which Harrison’s fame was to rest, disrupted Tecumseh’s confederacy but failed to diminish Indian raids. By the spring of 1812, they were again terrorizing the frontier.

In the War of 1812 Harrison won more military laurels when he was given the command of the Army in the Northwest with the rank of brigadier general. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, on October 5, 1813, he defeated the combined British and Indian forces, and killed Tecumseh. The Indians scattered, never again to offer serious resistance in what was then called the Northwest.

Then in 1840 he won the Presidency in a close election, gave his address, took sick and died.  But of what did he actually die?  Two New York Times science reporters think they have found the answer.

But a new look at the evidence through the lens of modern epidemiology makes it far more likely that the real killer lurked elsewhere — in a fetid marsh not far from the White House.

The first clue that the pneumonia diagnosis was wrong lies in Miller’s [Thomas Miller, Harrison’s doctor] own apparent uneasiness with it. “The disease,” he wrote, “was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

An 1846 map of Washington, top, shows the home (A) of William Henry Harrison, above, its water supply (B), and a field of “night soil” (C) that could have harbored deadly bacteria.

An 1846 map of Washington, top, shows the home (A) of William Henry Harrison, above, its water supply (B), and a field of “night soil” (C) that could have harbored deadly bacteria.

The conclusion:  Typhoid Fever.

In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.

That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.

Two other antebellum presidents, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.

Thus, the lack of a sewer system may have lead to the death of two presidents and the illness of a third.

Re-reading “The Daughter of Time” or was Richard III a murderer?

"The Princes in the Tower"

“The Princes in the Tower” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a re-reader.  If I like a book, particularly a mystery, I will read it again.  Josephine Tey is a writer I first read in high school when I was introduced by my mother.  I remember thinking at the time that ‘The Daughter of Time” was one of her least interesting stories.  After all, Alan Grant is in a hospital bed reading books about Richard III and sending researcher Brent Carradine to look for answers about someone who died 400 years before.  I believed in the Thomas More/William Shakespeare version of Richard.  I was probably fourteen.  But since then, I have re-read it several times and since the discovery of Richard’s bones have done so again.

It is a very carefully constructed guide to how to conduct an investigation.  Grant starts out with one of his nurses’ history books from school and moves on to more complete histories of Richard and England.  He finds out that Thomas More, although written as if he were a witness to the events surrounding the princes in the tower, was actually between 5 and 8 years old.  Grant and Carradine go to original sources for answers to the kinds of questions anyone conducting an investigation would ask.  Who benefits?  What were people saying at the time?  Where were the relevant people at the time of the alleged murders?  Who was still alive after Richard died?

There are many, like Winston Churchill, who are unconvinced by Tey.  Thomas B. Costain presented much the same evidence as Tey in his history, “The Last Plantagenets.”

Many who believe that Richard was guilty believe that Richard somehow stole the throne.  Edward IV had died, his oldest son was very young and Richard was to be Regent.  Instead, Richard learned that his brother’s marriage was, as they said, irregular.  Parliament declared a Titulus Regulus making Edward’s son ineligible for the throne and Richard became King.

There is no question that Richard had been an excellent administrator of north England, including York.  At the end of the book, Grant lays out his case.

In the matter of the presumed crime:

(a)  He did not stand to benefit; there were nine other heirs to the house of York, including three males;

(b)  There is no contemporary accusation.

(c)  The boys’ mother continued on friendly terms with him until his death, and her daughters attended Palace festivities.

(d)  He showed no fear of the other heirs of York, providing generously for their upkeep and granting all of them their royal state.

(e)  His own right to the crown was unassailable, approved by Act of Parliament and public acclamation; the boys were out of the succession and of no danger to him.

(f)  If he had been nervous about disaffection then the person to have got rid of was not the two boys, but the person who really was next in succession to him:  young Warwick.  Whom he publicly created his heir when his own son died.

And Grant’s case against Henry VII.

(a)  It was of great importance to him that the boys should not continue to live.  By repealing the Act [Titulus Regulus] acknowledging the children’s illegitimacy, he made the elder boy King of England and the youngest boy the next heir.

(b) In the Act which he brought before Parliament for the attainting of richard he accused Richard of the conventional tyranny and cruelty but made no mention of the two young Princes.  The conclusion is that at that time the two boys were alive and their whereabouts known.

(c)  The boys’ mother was deprived of her living and consigned to a nunnery eighteen months after his succession.

(d) He took immediate steps to secure the persons of all the other heirs to the crown, and kept them in close arrest until he could with the minimum of scandal get rid of them.

(e)  He had no right whatever to the throne.  Since the death of Richard, young Warwick was de jure King of England.

I can’t predict whether the discover of Richard’s bones will lead to his rehabilitation as a ruler, but Tey makes an interesting case in his favor.  If you like mysteries or history or both, I recomment “The Daughter of Time.”

Reading Dickens and other stuff

I haven’t written about books for a long time but I am always reading more than one book at a time.  So here is what I’ve been reading the last week or so.

We all know that at Christmas time there are endless versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on television, but when, if ever, was the last time you actually read the book?  I was probably in my early teens when I read it last.  This year we decided to purchase a copy which I just finished reading last week.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It is nicely illustrated by Greg Hildebrant who used as models various friends and relations.

Dickens wrote in his 1843 introduction

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.

I think we should all read it and/or watch our favorite movie version at least once a year.  (Here is one persons opinion of the 10 best television and film versions.)  It can teach us something about tolerance and old fashioned Charity.

One of my retirement projects is trying to figure out what books we actually own.  I had the idea of creating my own database and then stumbled upon LibraryThing.  It is a nifty online way to not only keep track of your books, but also to share with others.  You can post reviews, read what others think, and there are a lot of queries and statistics to play with.  Turns out to be a lot of fun in addition to being useful and easy to use.  You can also request free books in exchange for a review.  The book I reviewed for December was “Crime of Privilege” by Walter Walker.  It is a mystery which will be released soon.  Do not spend your money on this thinly disguised Kennedy family mash-up.  So far there is one other review posted and it is not good either.

Crime of Privilege: A Novel by Walter Walker

I am about half way through John Barry’s book about Roger Williams and separation of church and state.  It is fascinating history beginning in England and James’ efforts to make the Church of England more orthodox and more Catholic.

Roger Williams and the Creation of the…

Highly recommended.

And in between Barry, I am re-reading some Georgette Heyer.  Did you know there is a third book to what is called the Alastair trilogy? (“These Old Shades”, “Devil’s Cub” and “The Infamous Army”)  I’ve just ordered volume 3.  Heyer is still readable and fun.  Her stories remind me of  film comedies where people get into impossible situations but somehow all turns out right.  I have fun imagining them as movies.

It is getting cold out so pick up a book and curl up and read.

A Conservative History Lesson

This is from yesterday’s Shouts and Murmers column by Jack Hitt blogged in the New Yorker Magazine.  I thought about posting the entire thing, but decided on trying to pick some highlights.  The interesting thing is that often Shouts and Murmers is fictionalized or even pure fiction but Hitt has included approprite citations.  Let’s start at the beginning.

1500s: The American Revolutionary War begins: “The reason we fought  the revolution in the sixteenth century was to get away from that kind of  onerous crown.”—Rick Perry

1607: First welfare state collapses: “Jamestown colony, when it was  first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and  dying in the snow.”—Dick Armey

1619-1808: Africans set sail for America in search of freedom: “Other  than Native Americans, who were here, all of us have the same story.”—Michele  Bachmann

Bet the folks at Jamestown didn’t know it was socialist venture.  I always thought they were looking for things that would make them rich.

1776: The Founding Synod signs the Declaration of Independence: “…those fifty-six brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen.”—Mike  Huckabee

1787: Slavery is banned in the Constitution: “We also know that the  very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no  more in the United States.”—Michele Bachmann

1801: “Thomas Jefferson creates the Marines for the Islamic pirates  that were happening.”—Glenn Beck

And the blog helpfully includes a picture of the “Founding Synod.”

conservative-history.jpg

Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Moving on to the Civil War, I bet you didn’t know this.

1861:Civil  War breaks out over pitting “individual rights as proclaimed in the  Declaration of Independence against collective rights.”—The Weekly  Standard

More recent history doesn’t fare much better.

1916:Planned  Parenthood opens genocide clinics: “When Margaret Sanger—check my  history—started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in  primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they  came into the world.”—Herman Cain

1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy saves America from Communism: “Joe  McCarthy was a great American hero.”—Representative Steve King

1963: G.O.P. clergyman delivers his famous “I have a dream” speech: “It should come as no surprise that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a  Republican.”—Human Events blog

1964: Republicans fight for the Civil Rights Act: “We were the people  who passed the civil-rights bills back in the sixties without very much help  from our colleagues across the aisle.”—Representative Virginia Foxx

1967: Indonesia brainwashes its first Islamic terrorist spybot: “Why  didn’t anybody ever mention that that man right there was raised—spent the first  decade of his life, raised by his Muslim father—as a Muslim and was educated in  a Madrassa?”—Steve Doocy

And to the Clinton years.

1993: Hillary Clinton claims her first kill, Vincent Foster—Jerry  Falwell video

1994: Bill Clinton tops Hillary with twenty-four murders: these people  died “under other than natural circumstances.”— Representative William  Dannemeyer.

1998: Actually, the Clinton murders number forty people: “There was  talk that this would be another body to add to the list of forty bodies or  something that were associated with the Clinton Administration.”—Linda  Tripp.

1998: Update: Clinton murders eighty people: “In recent months, a list  of more than 80 deaths associated directly or indirectly with Clinton has been  the buzz of the new media.”—Joseph Farah

And finally to things I know you didn’t know that President Obama can add to his list of accomplishments.

2011: Arabic is declared America’s second language: “Some of our  state’s educational administrators joined the feds in seeking to mandate Arabic  classes for Texas children.”—Chuck Norris

2011: Obama outlaws fishing: people “can’t go fishing anymore because  of Obama.”—Rush Limbaugh

2011: Obama provides health insurance for dogs: “In the health care  bill, we’re now offering insurance for dogs.”—Glenn Beck

All I can say it is a good thing that the President included health care for dogs because Seamus could have probably used it.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/09/a-conservative-history-of-the-united-states.html#ixzz271B7Vxj5

 

 

Thinking about the Supreme Court

I’m not going to speculate (at least in this post) on who President Obama will nominate in a few weeks, but I am going to talk about  two pieces discussing the Court itself and how decisions are made. The first by Geoffrey R. Stone in the New York Times, the second posted by William Forbath  this weekend on Politico’s Arena in response to Stone.

Stone begins

AS the Senate awaits the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice, a frank discussion is needed on the proper role of judges in our constitutional system. For 30 years, conservative commentators have persuaded the public that conservative judges apply the law, whereas liberal judges make up the law. According to Chief Justice John Roberts, his job is just to “call balls and strikes.” According to Justice Antonin Scalia, conservative jurists merely carry out the “original meaning” of the framers. These are appealing but wholly disingenuous descriptions of what judges — liberal or conservative — actually do.

As both Stone and Forbath remind us, the Constitution is an 18th Century document.  I believe that the vague yet sweeping language is why the Constitution is still a living and useful document.  The question addressed by Stone and Forbath is how one interprets it to meet the modern age. Neither thinks much of the way the current conservative majority uses the constitution.

Stone

Rulings by conservative justices in the past decade make it perfectly clear that they do not “apply the law” in a neutral and detached manner. Consider, for example, their decisions holding that corporations have the same right of free speech as individuals, that commercial advertising receives robust protection under the First Amendment, that the Second Amendment prohibits the regulation of guns, that affirmative action is unconstitutional, that the equal protection clause mandated the election of George W. Bush and that the Boy Scouts have a First Amendment right to exclude gay scoutmasters.

Whatever one thinks of these decisions, it should be apparent that conservative judges do not disinterestedly call balls and strikes. Rather, fueled by their own political and ideological convictions, they make value judgments, often in an aggressively activist manner that goes well beyond anything the framers themselves envisioned. There is nothing simple, neutral, objective or restrained about such decisions. For too long, conservatives have set the terms of the debate about judges, and they have done so in a highly misleading way. Americans should see conservative constitutional jurisprudence for what it really is. And liberals must stand up for their vision of the judiciary.

Forbath

… Conservative judges use history to claim that when they strike down a law, they are merely applying the “original understanding” or “intentions” of the framers of the Constitution. This is bunk. But it is reassuring. It enables conservatives on and off the Court to claim that what liberal judges do is something different and illegitimate. Liberals are “judicial activists.” When liberal judges strike down a law, they are “making up” new law. They are “betraying” the Founding Fathers. This is also bunk. Conservative and liberal judges alike bring their own present-day values and convictions to bear on interpreting and applying the Constitution. Conservatives are wrong to deny it. But they are right that appealing to history and “keeping faith with the past” is an indispensable part of our constitutional tradition – and one that helps mobilize popular support behind the constitutional commitments a judge, lawmaker, or citizen may prize. So, liberals need to get a better handle on the way to use history.

So what should the role of history be?  And how can liberal justices use it more to their advantage?  Stone points out that

So, how should judges interpret the Constitution? To answer that question, we need to consider why we give courts the power of judicial review — the power to hold laws unconstitutional — in the first place. Although the framers thought democracy to be the best system of government, they recognized that it was imperfect. One flaw that troubled them was the risk that prejudice or intolerance on the part of the majority might threaten the liberties of a minority. As James Madison observed, in a democratic society “the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended … from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” It was therefore essential, Madison concluded, for judges, whose life tenure insulates them from the demands of the majority, to serve as the guardians of our liberties and as “an impenetrable bulwark” against every encroachment upon our most cherished freedoms.

Conservative judges often stand this idea on its head. As the list of rulings above shows, they tend to exercise the power of judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society. They employ judicial review to protect the powerful rather than the powerless.

Liberal judges, on the other hand, have tended to exercise the power of judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage racial and religious minorities, political dissenters, people accused of crimes and others who are unlikely to have their interests fully and fairly considered by the majority. Liberal judges have ended racial segregation, recognized the principle of “one person, one vote,” prohibited censorship of the Pentagon Papers and upheld the right to due process, even at Guantanamo Bay. This approach to judicial review fits much more naturally with the concerns and intentions of people like Madison who forged the American constitutional system.

Where Forbath disagrees is with Stone’s reliance on James Madison and original intent.  He points out

So, judges today must attend to the text the framers gave us, the general principles it enshrines, the Amendments Americans have added, and the meaning and range of applications generations of judges, lawmakers and citizens have poured into them. And judges must consult their own conscience and experience as they sift through these materials that history provides and decide how best to keep faith with the past.

As long as they hew to this honest approach to history, liberals often draw compelling lessons from it. But lately, liberals are being drawn into the fictions and falsities of the “framers’ intentions” in order to sound just as “true” to the Founding Fathers as our conservative foes. When we liberals play the “framers’ intentions” game, however, we end up sounding silly and disingenuous.

Take for example constitutional scholar Geoffrey Stone’s important op-ed piece in last Wednesday’s New York Times. Looking ahead to President Obama’s soon-to-be-announced nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice, Stone urges “a frank discussion .on the proper role of judges in our constitutional system.” He laments that for thirty years or so, conservatives have dominated the national conversation about the Constitution and the Court, and he rightly points out that they have done so “in a highly misleading way” by claiming that conservative judges just “apply” the Constitution by enforcing the “framers’ intentions.” Stone goes on to contrast the kinds of laws that liberal judges strike down – laws that burden racial minorities, the poor and the powerless, with laws that conservative judges strike down – laws that “disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society.” And he suggests that liberal judges surely have a wiser vision of the role of judges in a constitutional democracy, since they wield the power of judicial review to safeguard people most at risk of being shortchanged in the ordinary political process, while the conservative judges conjure up new safeguards for those who already enjoy ample sway in the political arena.

So far so good. But along the way, Stone proves unable to resist the siren song of “framers’ intentions.” He tries to turn the table on the conservatives. He goes to some lengths trying to cloak liberal constitutional values and commitments in the mantle of James Madison’s “intentions.” Stone has dressed up James Madison as a Great Society liberal. Says Stone, the “intentions of people like Madison who forged the American constitutional system” was to safeguard minorities like African-Americans, undocumented immigrants and the Guantanamo detainees against the tyranny of the majority. That is what liberal judges do. Conservatives, Stone declares, stand Madison’s “idea on its head.” They wield judicial review to overturn affirmative action, gun control, and restrictions on corporate speech; they “tend to exercise. judicial review to invalidate laws that disadvantage corporations, business interests, the wealthy and other powerful interests in society.”

Stone’s James Madison is bunk too. The real James Madison was largely hostile to any kind of judicial review. More important: while Madison did craft the Constitution to safeguard minority rights against the tyranny of the majority, and while Madison, the wealthy slaveholder, was concerned about protecting religious minorities, he had no concern for the rights of “racial minorities,” and it was mainly the rights of the wealthy over against the majority of Americans of modest means that Madison hoped to protect! Thus, the conservatives on today’s Court have about as good a claim to Madison’s mantle as we liberals do.

I think Forbath is right about history and original intent.  As long as we argue about which view of original intent is correct, liberals will never prevail.  We need to move on to take into about all the history since 1787.  Forbath writes

History is on our side; but that has much less to do with James Madison and much more to do with the bloodshed of the Civil War and the Civil War and Reconstruction Amendments that made the Constitution a charter of equal rights for all Americans, including the former slaves. It was the Republicans of the Reconstruction Era, the New Dealers, the Civil Rights Movement, and the twentieth-century Court who gradually enlarged Madison’s original conception of minority rights and majority tyranny to make it a safeguard for the poor and vulnerable.

We do need “a frank discussion” on the Constitution and the proper role of judges, and we can’t be half-frank about it. There are good arguments why the liberals’ account is better. Stone offers a few. But wrapping ourselves in the mantle of the 18th century framers’ intentions as he tries to do is not one. Our constitutional commitments have emerged over two centuries of tumultuous change. The arc of constitutional history generally has bent toward a more inclusive and generous vision of rights-bearing membership in We, the People. Conservatives are bending it back. The 18th century framers might have agreed with them; but the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments, and much else have intervened in the mean time; and, in any case, the choice – about how to keep faith with our constitutional past – is ours.

We need a Supreme Court with Justices that are willing to grow, to learn and to change with the times.  President Obama could do worse that nominate someone in the Earl Warren or Justice Powell or Justice Brennan mold.  Those were men who learned to consider cases on their merits, who understood the need to connect decisions to real ordinary people.  They were men with empathy.