Weekly Read: The Lost City of Z

I generally roll my eyes at people who see a movie based on a book and then tut tut that “the book was better.” Even as a writer, it comes off as snobbish to me. The written word is a different medium than film, which makes adaptations their own things. One’s rarely “better,” even in a subjective sense, than the other. They’re just different.

The film, The Lost City of Z (released last year), got a good amount of praise when it was released. I’ve even seen people list it as being snubbed in the Oscar race. It’s the story of Percy Fawcett, who repeatedly search the Amazon jungle for evidence of a lost city in the early part of the last century. The wife and I put it on our list of flicks to see and, the other weekend, were able to pay per view it. My thoughts at the time was that it was a fine flick, but it suffered in comparison to such jungle fever dreams as Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

It did interest me enough to go read the book upon which the movie is based. Also called The Lost City of Z, it weaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions in with the attempt of author David Grann to track down evidence of Fawcett’s final expedition (no spoiler alert – Fawcett’s disappearance in 1925 is one of the everlasting mysteries of the golden age of exploration). I’m glad I did, not just because the book provides more detail than any movie possibly could, but it makes clear that large hunks of the movie are complete and utter fiction.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about whether the film itself, or the book, is “accurate” from an historical standpoint. There was a lively debate at the time the movie came out with historians arguing that it portrayed Fawcett in a much more positive, progressive light than the historical record supports (also, he sucked at exploring). Naturally, the director’s response to this was, in essence, “it’s art and you can’t talk like that about it.” That’s not what I’m really interested in. However, I will note this observation from one critique of the movie version of Fawcett:

The original book, by David Grann, was much more intelligent and nuanced, as one would expect from a staff writer on the New Yorker. But everything has gone wrong in its clumsy adaptation for the screen by director James Gray, who has written his own script and then filmed it with great reverence – almost always a mistake.

That sounds about right, although “clumsy” is perhaps too kind. It’s simply bizarre for a movie based on a particular non-fiction book – it even uses the title! – to break from the book in so many fundamental ways. I’m not talking about the inevitable compression that happens to turn a biography into a movie – that Fawcett had 8 Amazon expeditions, not 3, or that he and his son had a third person on their final voyage makes sense. I’m talking about things that get the character so wrong I don’t understand why the writer/director used the name of a real person.

For example, one of the most obvious diversions from the book is the in the film Fawcett is portrayed as having fallen into exploration after being tapped by the military and Royal Geographical Society to survey a river on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. In fact, Fawcett caught the exploration bug while stationed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when he fell hard for a story of buried treasure (he didn’t find that, either). He’d already attended a 1-year course at the RGS before the surveying mission came up.

Or take the depiction of Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son, Jack. In the film Jack is shown as an angry kid, raging against his father as a failure after an expedition collapses spectacularly (bonus point – the book never mentions that Fawcett resigned from the RGS in the aftermath, as the film portrays). They’re reconnection as they plan the last expedition is a moving part of the film. But, according to Grann’s book at least (the source material for the film!), the two were always close and Jack wanted to join his father in his explorations almost as soon as he could.

But the most egregious example involves World War I. Fawcett was well into his Amazon explorations when the war broke out. He went back to England and, eventually, to the Western Front. The film portrays Fawcett leading a Paths of Glory style assault over the top (after consulting with a Madame Blavatsky type – she died in 1891) during which he’s wounded by gas. No just wounded – blinded. A doctor even tells the blind Fawcett that he’ll never see the jungle again. This is utter fiction, unless Grann decided to skip the episode completely in his book. Fawcett wasn’t wounded, much less blinded, and didn’t sit around the English countryside recuperating for years until his son convinced him to give it one more go. Why the director (who also wrote the script) decided to put it in is anybody’s guess.

Somebody could have made a really interesting movie out of the Grann’s book. Even without the modern day overlay of Grann’s own expedition, the atmosphere of doom that clung to Fawcett’s final expedition could have really worked as the backbone of the movie (cover what else needs to be covered in flashbacks). Or, alternately, somebody could have used Fawcett as the basis for a truly fictional character and played around with the details as he saw fit. The Lost City of Z the movie isn’t either of those and it suffers for it. The Fawcett of the book is much more interesting than his celluloid counterpart.

But it did lead me to the book, for which I thank it. For, in this instance, the tutters would be right – the book really is better than the movie.

lost city z bookLost City of Z film

We All Need Some Light

The other day at work I was doing some research at a different end of the West Virginia Code that normal and came across a provision that made absolutely no sense to me. It’s WV Code §2-1-2, titled “Ancient Lights” for those playing at home:

The common law of England in regard to ancient lights is not in force in this state.

The background for this is that the prior section (WV Code §2-1-1) adopts English common law “except as altered by the general assembly of Virginia” before June 20, 1863. In other words, we adopted Virginia’s law as is when we left the commonwealth during the Civil War. But apparently it was important to exclude from that this law on “ancient lights.” So what are we missing here in the Mountain State?

Turns out it’s a right to light! In some places, at least. Specifically, it’s a kind of easement, which is a property interest that someone has in someone else’s property – think of someone who has the legal right to use a path across their next door neighbor’s property. In England, if a person has a building with windows that for 20 years have received daylight they can prevent someone else from building in a way as to obstruct the light.

Thus, you have things like this on some old English buildings:

Ancient_lights_signs_Clerkenwell FULL

Pic by Mike Newman via Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, West Virginia isn’t alone in not adopting this doctrine, so very few Americans actually have an enforceable right to light. Which is a shame, since, as the song says, we all need some light.

Weekly Read: The Road to Jonestown

There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.

That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.

Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.

The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.

At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.

The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.

Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).

More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.

The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.

Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.


Weekly Read: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

On September 9, 1971, inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York (not too far from Buffalo) took control of part of the prison. For the next four days they negotiated with authorities over a list of grievances, at times with the help of notable civilians such as attorneys and journalists. After reaching an impasse, authorities stormed the prison on September 13, killing 43 people – including 10 correctional officers who had been taken hostage. It’s no wonder that the events at Attica galvanized the nation and quickly worked their way into pop culture:

What’s interesting is how different people refer to those events. Some call them a riot, with all the connotations that word brings – senseless violence, brute force, unfocused rage. Others, such as historian Heather Ann Thompson in her Pulitzer-winning book, Blood in the Water, refers to the events as an uprising – an event where a repressed group of men sought change in the only manner available to them. Which camp you fall into probably says a lot about your politics in general.

Which is appropriate because politics is a driving force in Thompson’s book, beginning with the political aspirations of New York’s governor at the time of the uprising, Nelson Rockefeller. He wanted to be president and couldn’t afford to be seen as “soft” on crime or criminals (it’s no surprise that Nixon backed his play at Attica). In addition, he viewed the uprising as the tail end of leftist activism from the 1960s and worried that if the Attica uprising wasn’t suppressed it could spawn an actual revolution.

The inmates didn’t do the most they could to dissuade Rockefeller from this position. Although their long list of demands dealt mostly with conditions at Attica or within the criminal justice system in general, there were (at least at some points) demands for a plan to take anyone who wanted to go to Africa and other broadly political requests.

Having said that, the negotiations made progress. The sticking point turned out to be amnesty for those involved in the uprising. Rockefeller insisted he didn’t have the power to do it (doubtful) and all rested with the local prosecutor. The inmates, for their part, didn’t seem to realize that once one of the correctional officers who had been attacked in the early stage of the uprising had died there was little chance of a blanket amnesty, anyway.

That authorities eventually stormed the prison to regain control wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was how it was done, with a collection of state troopers, correctional officers, and National Guard troops armed to the teeth. Similar, if smaller, uprisings in other New York facilities (including New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail) had been put down without the use of firearms and the associated loss of life. Authorities went into Attica with guns blazing, however, and left a horrific toll in their wake.

Thompson’s great achievement in Blood in the Water is taking those four days of the uprising and laying out what happened in serious detail. She also provides a great deal of context for the uprising, placing it as one of a series of such things around the country, not just a sudden, confusing spasm of violence. It’s an important portrait of a watershed event in American history painstakingly pieced together.

Once the uprising is put down, however, the book begins to lag. Initially the response of the state is familiar to anyone in 2017 watching the news when an unarmed black man is gunned down by police. First, authorities lie – in this case, by claiming that the 10 hostages who died during the retaking where killed by inmates, often in ways that involved mutilation. Second, authorities dehumanize the inmates – everyone involved at Attica was a murderer or rapist or similar kind of thug. In truth, many were there for minor parole violations and other non-violent offenses. Third, when the truth comes out – medical examiners refused to be silenced about what actually killed the hostages – the authorities downplay, obfuscate, and at no point apologize or formally correct the record.

It’s no surprise, then, that litigation about Attica – criminal and civil – dragged out for decades. Thompson deploys the same attention to detail to that litigation, but to less effect. There are so many trials with so many different players that the narrative becomes scattered. Also, there are things that jumped out to my lawyer eye that deserved further detail. For example, there were mutual defense groups set up to help defend the Attica inmates during their criminal trials. Such a setup is rife with ethical issues (conflicts of interest, primarily), but Thompson never addresses them. Another example is when there’s a ruling by the judge in one inmate’s case that, we’re told, profoundly impacted several others, but there’s no discussion of the ruling itself.

What Thompson’s exhaustive stroll through the litigation does is drive home just how much the apparatus of the “state” – meaning both the New York and federal governments – were determined not to really find out what went down at Attica. Most obviously that’s borne out by how the New York players obfuscated when it came to the facts, but it’s smaller things, too. There’s the fact about how the state tried to lock the families of the guards who had been injured and held hostage into taking small workers’ compensation payouts rather than actually suing anybody. Or there’s the ultimate brush off – the federal judge handling one of the civil cases went on vacation while the jury was deliberating. It doesn’t paint a good picture of a society coming to grips with a horrific event.

For all its cachet as a touchstone in the culture, it’s amazing that it took until last year for a definitive history of the Attica uprising to be written. For that Thompson deserves all the praise she’s gotten. That the entire story isn’t as gripping as those four days in September of 1991 isn’t her fault. For that part alone, I highly recommend Blood in the Water.


Not Exactly The Thomas Crown Affair, Is It?

Art heists are great fodder for movies and books. The stakes are usually pretty high, involving unique, priceless works of art. Daring do is often required to pull them off. And it provides a good opportunity for suave characters to behave suavely.

This isn’t one of those stories.

In February 1965, Salvador Dalí painted a version of Christ on the cross – in an hour and a  quarter – and donated to Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex. Dalí was supposed to meet with some inmate artists, but wasn’t feeling well, so he sent the painting instead. It was hung in the cafeteria, where it proceeded to collect stains from various jailhouse food fights. In 1981, somebody realized what it was (and had it appraised for $250,000) and took it down.

After a short tour around the country and some time in storage, the painting was hung up again at Rikers – but not where the inmates could actually see it. Instead, it was put up in a lobby where jail employees went in and out. In 2003, a group of those employees (four guards) decided to steal it.

The plan was to create a couple of distractions and allow the leader of the scheme to take the Dalí while replacing it with a fake. It didn’t go well:

It was noticeably smaller than the original, an instant tip-off, but the reproduction was also one that, based on descriptions, not even a child would have wanted to claim. Plus, the reproduction of the cafeteria stains were an entirely different color. It was bad.

Then, of course, there was the painting’s presentation. Yes, the glass case had been locked back up with the copy safely inside. But where the original had been displayed in its gold frame, the fake was simply stapled to the back of the box, sans frame.

The whole plan was amateurish at best, but when you factor in the location—a prison teeming with law enforcement officials who spent their days gazing at that exact painting (there were two guard booths in direct view of the Dalí)—it was stupidity at its finest.

The very next day, several guards reported that there was something wrong with the Dalí.

They all got caught, of course, although the ringleader managed to get a not guilty verdict at trial (the others were convicted).  As for the Dalí itself? One of the thieves says that the ringleader got nervous and destroyed it.

On second thought, maybe there is a great story here, in the tradition of a Coen Brothers “heist gone wrong” kind of thing. I’d watch it. I’ll even suggest a theme song:


Will I Care Once I’m Dead?

Thinking about future projects the other day – ideas that are well enough developed that I can see a book coming out of them – I figured that I have material for about 20 books locked away in my brain. Even at a pace of one a year that means a long haul going forward. Let’s face it – chances are that I’ll be in the middle of writing some book when I die. What should happen to it and any others that might be semi-started?

The issue is back in the news recently thanks to the amusingly public way that the late great Terry Pratchet’s unfinished works were handled. Per his request, his hard drive (which contained as many as 10 works in progress) was destroyed – by being crushed by a steamroller.

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchet’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

Destruction isn’t the only option, of course. Robert Jordan, author of the massive Wheel of Time series, realized he wouldn’t live to see the completion of the series, so he provided a trove of notes and left the final few books to be completed by Brandon Sanderson. I can’t speak to the quality of Sanderson’s work and whether he did a good job with Jordan’s baby, but, again, it’s hard to complain when the people involved do just what the author wanted them to.

The legal-rule side of my personality says this is precisely how it should work. An author (or her designee) is the master of her own work, after all. If she never wants the world to see it, or only wants the world to see it with certain conditions, that’s her right. If she wants to take any potential masterpieces to the grave, that’s no problems.

Except we have examples where ignoring the author’s wishes turns out pretty well. When Franz Kafka died he left his literary executor (and friend) Max Brod fairly specific instructions:

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread

Brod did no such thing. As a result, we have all of Kafka’s novels, including The Trial, none of which were published before Kafka’s death.


A world without The Trial is barely fathomable (ironically), but had Brod did as instructed, we’d never know of it. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura was published against his wishes after he died. Even Mark Twain had a new collection of essays published almost a century after his death – against his wishes.

And so I find myself retreating from my bright-line rule of always doing what the author wants. After all, what’s the harm in ignoring those wishes? Yes, work might be released that the author wasn’t happy with, but the author isn’t going to be around to complain. A reputation could be diminished, I suppose, but authors have very little say in how the world perceives them when they’re alive and even less when they’re dead. Besides, does the posthumous release of a bad book by a great author devalue their prior work? It’s not a perfect analogy (since Harper Lee is still alive), but is To Kill a Mockingbird any less a masterpiece because Go Tell a Watchman was kind of ordinary? I don’t see how.

It’s a more complicated problem than I thought it was at first glance. Certainly, I don’t think it’s a legal issue. I’d oppose any law that required an author’s papers and unfinished works to become some kind of public good and exploited willy nilly. Nor would I support laws that would punish people like Brod for ignoring the wishes of their dead author friend. But, I have a hard time working up too much outrage when an author’s wishes are disregarded, so long as the person doing the second guessing is a close friend or family member. If they are all right with it, I’m in no place to complain. It’s kind of like jury nullification – I’m not a fan of promoting it, but I’m glad it exists for the rare occasions when it’s really necessary.

So I guess what I’m saying, to my literary heirs, if they ever get around to reading this – you’re on your own!

Weekly Read: American Heiress

As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. One of the problems with writing fiction is that readers expect it to make sense, for characters to behave in ways that are believable and compelling. Writers telling true stories aren’t saddled with such issues. Jeffrey Toobin’s latest, American Heiress, tells one of those stories that, if labeled fiction, would have readers rolling their eyes in disbelief.

The basic parameters of the Patty Hearst case are fairly well known. She was kidnapped from the apartment she shared with her then-fiancé in Berkley, California, by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was held for months, during which time she turned from captive to comrade. As a professed member of the SLA she participated in bank robberies and lead a life on the run. It all came to an end with an arrest, conviction, and lengthy federal prison sentence.

Toobin’s book breaks down, basically, into three parts. Part one covers Hearst’s background, the kidnapping itself, and her turn to bank robber. This part is a bonkers story with a lot of different angles playing into it – not just Hearst and her kidnappers, but also her family and the law enforcement officers working the case. Then there’s Hearst’s fiancé, who famously told the kidnappers to “take anything you want” when they broke in. As Toobin jokes (multiple times), they did.

Events after the kidnapping played out in a way that seems unbelievable today. The Hearst family – who, at this point, were nowhere near as wealthy as people thought – agreed to an SLA demand to set up a broad food giveaway for the poor. The operation, created almost overnight, had to fight off local grifters (including Jim Jones) and led to riots. The fiancé, whom the family never liked, tried to help in his own way, but only led to his reputation being shredded.

This part makes you hope that the American Crime Story crew, who turned Toobin’s The Run of His Life into The People v. OJ Simpson for FX, has the rights to this book. There are so many characters (the list of famous people who had some connection to all this is impressive – Jane Pauley, Kevin Kline, Lance Ito, and, later on, Bill Walton) acting in so many bizarre ways that Ryan Murphy’s sensibilities would be well served. Appropriately enough, this part wraps up after the SLA members split up and Hearst and her two comrades watched the other half dozen perish in a scene that played out like a mini-Waco – gunfight followed by immolation.

The rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to the first part. The middle section drags a bit as Hearst and the others go on the lamb. Mostly it’s because we lose the multiple angle approach that brought so many characters into play. Still, there’s a particularly odd idyll in the Pennsylvania woods (which has given me a great story idea) and it’s important to the story as a whole.

Part three covers the Hearst’s eventual arrest and trial. One would think that Toobin, being a lawyer, would focus mostly on this, but he gives it a brief, compelling summary, during which one thing becomes clear – Toobin has no regard for Hearst’s lawyer, F. Lee. Bailey. In Toobin’s telling, Bailey was a swaggering, swashbuckling self promoter for whom practicing law was almost an afterthought. He had a deal to write a book about the trial before it even started and spent several nights during trial flying back and forth to Las Vegas to speak at legal seminars. To boot, while Bailey’s reputation was built on winning big cases – Sam Sheppard (aka The Fugitive) and the Boston Strangler – he, like any criminal defense lawyer, lost more than he won. For Hearst, he lost.

Hearst’s trial – she was charged with bank robbery and carrying a firearm in relation to it – boiled down to one issue: did she willingly engage in this criminal conduct after becoming a SLA member, or was she a kidnap victim who had been brutalized, terrorized, and brainwashed to the point where she did whatever she was told in order to survive? It’s clear that Toobin agrees with the jury that convicted her that Hearst was a fully fledged revolutionary by the time of the robbery. What’s really troubling is that while it seems like Hearst did shift into the role of SLA comrade, she shifted out of it just as easily. Given that all this happened while she was barely an adult (she was 19 at the time of the kidnapping, 21 when convicted), I wonder what modern research in the brain development of young adults might shed some light on whether such swings of outlook are really that out of the realm of normal.

Whatever steam the book loses after the first part Toobin finds when he gets righteous in the conclusion. After her conviction was affirmed on appeal and the trial court denied a habeas claim (contrary to what Toobin says, ineffective assistance of counsel claims are routine and often completely baseless), Hearst’s family started a massive effort to get her sentence commuted. It was, eventually, but Jimmy Carter. The staggering bipartisan group that pushed for clemency included famous hardliners such as John Wayne and Carter’s opponent in the upcoming election, Ronald Reagan. Part of it, Toobin argues, is that once Jim Jones led his group in a mass suicide (and murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, a vocal supporter of Hearst), it became much easier to believe Hearst’s story of brainwashing. In the end, she only served about two out of the seven years to which she was sentenced.

But it didn’t stop there. Flash forward to the end of the 1990s and Hearst is now seeking something unprecedented – getting a pardon from a second President after first gaining a commutation. There was no consensus this time – part of the opposition was the then United States Attorney in San Francisco, a guy named Robert Mueller. But Carter and his wife appealed directly to Bill Clinton, who pardoned Hearst on his last day in office.

Toobin, who clearly believes Hearst was a willing participant in her criminal activity, makes the obvious point – only Patty Hearst had the resources and name recognition to get clemency twice, in spite of the evidence against her. People who have done a lot less have gone to prison for a lot longer and not gotten any sniff of clemency. But those people were the ones the SLA said it was fighting for. They weren’t wealthy heiresses.

Toobin’s book is well worth reading. Even if the back half can’t live up to the entertainment value of the first part, there’s a lot of interesting info in here. Toobin does a good job of setting the context for all this (You think we’ve got political strife today? How do several years with 2500 bombings across the country sound?). There’s also some original research, as Toobin got his hands on previously unseen letters Hearst and her lover/co-defendant wrote to each other after their arrest (as couriered by Hearst’s first lawyer). I’m not sure it all makes sense in the end, but so what? It’s real life – it doesn’t have to.

PS – For an interesting perspective on the book, check out this column from Andrew O’Heir, who grew up in the San Francisco area while all this was going on.


New Technology = Moral Panic

I’m reading Tom Perrotta’s new book Mrs. Fletcher, which is about a single mother navigating the modern world on her own once her brotastic son leaves for college. At one point she flashes back to a talk given to the local PTA addressing the then latest and greatest moral panic – Internet porn. It was delivered by a prosecutor, naturally, since history shows that the best reaction to any panic is to lock people in cages.

The panic over Internet porn is hardly the first situation where an emerging technology leads some people to think said tech is going to lead the world to hell in a hand basket. In fact, it’s a fairly predictable pattern that’s played out many times throughout history.

Slate has an article about the moral panic that surrounded the great technological breakthrough of . . . cheap paper.

Although the printing press had brought reading out of the monasteries and upper classes, the actual production of books didn’t ramp up all that much because of the lack of quality paper. People lower down the socio-economic ladder didn’t own books, they owned a book – usually a Bible.

That started to change in the 19th century:

The paper machine, invented in France in 1799 at the Didot family’s paper mill, could make 40 times as much paper per day as the traditional method, which involved pounding rags into pulp by hand using a mortar and pestle. By 1825, 50 percent of England’s paper supply was produced by machines. As the stock of rags for papermaking grew smaller and smaller, papermakers began experimenting with other materials such as grass, silk, asparagus, manure, stone, and even hornets’ nests. In 1800, the Marquess of Salisbury gifted to King George III a book printed on ‘the first useful Paper manufactured solely from Straw’ to demonstrate the viability of the material as an alternative for rags, which were already in ‘extraordinary scarcit’ in Europe.

Then, in the 1860s, came the real breakthrough – paper made from wood pulp. Upwards of 90% of modern paper is made from wood pulp or recycled pulp. This cheaper, more readily available paper led to the explosion of low-cost books for the masses. That’s why it’s called “pulp fiction.”

You know, things like this:



And it was of the Devil:

Detractors delighted in linking ‘the volatile matter’ of wood-pulp paper with the ‘volatile minds’ of pulp readers. Londoner W. Coldwell wrote a three-part diatribe, ‘On Reading,’ lamenting that ‘the noble art of printing’ should be ‘pressed into this ignoble service.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge mourned how books, once revered as ‘religious oracles … degraded into culprits’ as they became more widely available.

By the end of the century there was growing concern—especially among middle class parents—that these cheap, plentiful books were seducing children into a life of crime and violence.

* * *

Moralizers painted the books as no better than ‘printed poison,’ with headlines warning readers that Pomeroy’s brutality was ‘what came of reading dime novels.’ Others hoped that by providing alternatives—penny delightfuls or ‘penny populars’—they could curb the demand for the sensational literature. A letter to the editor to the Worcester Talisman from the late 1820s tells young people to stop reading novels and read books of substance: ‘[F]ar better were it for a person to confine himself to the plain sober facts recorded in history and the lives of eminent individuals, than to wander through the flowery pages of fiction.’

It’s easy now to look back at such panics and roll your eyes and the naive concern about cheap books or television or whatever kind of music kids are listening to at the time. But history, as they say, repeats itself. Rather than being smug in our modern superiority, maybe think twice the next time some panic is sweeping the nation. Try not to give future generations something to roll their eyes about.


This Argument Makes No Sense

Authorities in New Orleans have begun removing from public land a group of monuments dedicated to the Confederacy. It says something about how touchy a subject this is that the people doing the work had to be masked and protected by police snipers.

Among all the wrangling about this there’s one argument from the enablers of the Lost Cause that I just don’t understand, since it makes no fucking sense. It’s made repeatedly in the comments to this story in the Guardian. Here’s a representative sample, responding to the article’s point that this isn’t an issue of erasing history:

Yes it does. You have removed a piece of history from public view. Say you were walking past it with your young child and they said, “Daddy, what does that statue represent” then you could explain to them. Otherwise they are unlikely to learn about the past that has been removed, unless they teach it in school. But even then it’s not the same because it’s just words in books. It’s like removing fossils.

I can only figure that this is a post-hoc rationalization for a knee-jerk opposition to anything perceived as being done in the name of “political correctness,” because a couple seconds of thought shows is just doesn’t make a damned bit of sense.

Take this to its logical conclusion – once a monument of some kind has been erected, it can never be taken down without “erasing history.” If that’s true, we’re not exactly innocent:


Then there’s the wholesale destruction of Nazi symbols and such in Germany following World War II. Or the toppling of statues of Stalin or Lenin following the end of the Cold War. The idea that monuments have infinite shelf lives simply isn’t rooted in history.

Beyond that, if a monument is history that can never be erased, does it create a perpetual obligation upon future taxpayers to keep it in good repair? Neither of those things can be true – they just don’t make any sense.

Let’s hypothesize using a silly example. In Futurama we learn that, sometime between Fry being frozen and thawed out, New York had a supervillain for a governor. Not only did he “collect” a bunch of famous monuments from around the world, he even added himself to Mount Rushmore:


Now, years after the fact, are the citizens of New New York required to look at the face of evil everyday in the name of history? Do they have to pay to keep the super villain’s face looking crisp and life like? I’d say the answer is clearly no, but I’m not sure how those “this is erasing history” people could reach that conclusion.

Monuments and memorials are put up for a reason – because the people of that community at that time thought they were appropriate. There’s no magic in those intentions, nothing that shields the thing memorialized from future scrutiny. It’s entirely appropriate for future communities to decide that this thing is no longer worth celebrating.

Let’s Play the Feud!

I’m currently reading Authors In Court: Scenes from the Theater of Copyright, which uses a handful of case studies to track the development of copyright law since its introduction in England via the Statute of Anne in 1710. I haven’t even gotten through the first case yet and already I’m entertained. To anyone who thinks folks way back when were more civilized than modern, crass, digital folks, think again.

That first case involves Alexander Pope, English author (and second most quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, according to Wikipedia – behind only Shakespeare), and a contemporary publisher named Edmund Curll. They’re in the book because, eventually, Pope sued Curll for publishing some of his letters in which, Pope argued, he retained the copyright. But things got ugly long before that.

Curll and Pope were very different people. Pope was a country gentleman, an elite. He was a writer, but he didn’t do it for a living (heaven forefend!). Curll, by contrast, was a scrappy businessman, doing anything he could to make a buck. He developed a reputation as a low-rent publisher, becoming (among other things) the first publisher in England to be convicted of obscenity.

What set the feud alight was a book Curll published called Court Poems, which purported to contain works by Pope (among others). The poems were scandalous and Pope was upset, either because he or a friend was designated as the author of some of them. Rather than just send a nasty letter, Pope got even in a much more emphatic way:

shortly after the book appeared, Pop contrived to encounter Curll at a tavern in Fleet Street. There, under the pretense of sharing a glass of wine as a sign of reconciliation, Pope dosed Curll’s drink.

Said dose was an “emetic,” a word which sent me scrambling to the dictionary. Long story short – it’s something that makes you puke.

Poisoning a professional rival so that he puked is a pretty dick move. But Pope wasn’t done:

A few days later, adding insult to injury, Pope published a comic pamphlet couched in the sensationalist style of a Grub Street production, a style not entirely different from that of, say, a modern supermarket tabloid. Titled A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, Bookseller, Pope’s undated pamphlet, identified only as “by an Eye Witness,” reports on the tavern episode and then veers off into malicious fantasy as the stricken Curll, convinced that he is dying, makes his last will and testament.

In the end he is spared from death by “a plentiful foetid Stool.” Pope still wasn’t done, writing two more pamphlets expanding the fantasy and, eventually , devolving into anti-Semitism.

Future chapters involve Harriet Beecher-Stowe and J.D. Salinger, among others. I wonder if they taunted their rivals with bodily fluids (and tales thereof), too?

They might, given that the Pope/Curll feud is just one of many in literary history that went beyond simple sniping at each other. For example, Gore Vidal once compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson – so Mailer punched him at a party (leading to Vidal’s retort – “once again, words fail Norman Mailer). Hell, Mario Vargas Llosa punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1976 and neither ever explained why (although this article suggests it was over a woman and, therefore, isn’t really a literary feud at all) .

Of course, writers being writers they’re more likely to lash out at each other with words rather than fists. Playwright Lillian Hellman sued critic Mary McCarthy after McCarthy said that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman got the last laugh, dying before the suit could be heard. Salman Rushdie responded to John Updike making fun of a name he used in one of his books by suggesting that Updike “stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do.” Finally, after Colson Whitehead gave a book by Richard Ford a particularly nasty review in the New York Times, Ford spit on Whitehead at a party. Whitehead shot back that this “wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me” and that other critical reviewers (there were a bunch, apparently) best “get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”

If nothing else, feuds tend to be good for business. Pope and Curll, certainly, made hay out of their beef. Maybe what I need to do is go honk off some famous author and start a heated back and forth! Yeah, that’s the ticket!