Today I am submitting for inspection a little piece called Conrad and the Tailor, the first in a collection of “Cautionary Tales.” I was inspired by my memories of a slender volume of poems given me by my grandmother when I was three years old. Slovenly Peter first appeared in Germany as Der Struwwelpeter, an 1845 children’s book by Heinrich Hoffman.
Hoffman was, among other things, the doctor at a lunatic asylum in Frankfurt, where he considered himself to be “the sunshine in the life of his miserable patients.” I will let my readers judge the level of his success.
Have I mentioned that my family specialized in dark humor?
I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library led by the talented Claudia Ricci. What a relief to leave behind research and early twentieth century America for a few hours!
I sit in the summer house at the back of my garden while the red squirrel cuts half-ripe cones from the spruce tree high overhead. In the distance, I hear the first calls of the geese taking this year’s brood for a practice flight. The sound brings with it the smell of golden leaves lit by low sunlight.
The plants that surround me are pushing out their last flowers in a rush to make seed before a frost cuts short their leafy lives. All this beauty underlain with desperate determination – all life writ small.
I hear a rustle in the viburnums. Suddenly, she’s there, still as a statue. Only her ears move. She takes a step, then another, and then behind her are this year’s fawns.
I stay so still, so quiet, and the doe begins to move along the border, delicately snipping flowerheads one by one, thoughtfully masticating. The fawns are less discriminating, trying plant after plant.
“Deer resistant!” they seem to say. “Take that, allium, and that, you prickly holly!”
Enough, I think, and sit up straight. A startled look, a quick retreat, and I am alone again.
“Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.” (Emphasis mine.) – In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
This remarkable study of the sinking of the Lusitania effectively captures both the nervous gaiety of this massive ship’s last voyage and the cold despair of her passengers in the waters of the Irish coast where so many met their end. In a parallel thread, author Diana Preston takes us into the cramped and musty submarine, U20, to meet her captain, Walther Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo attack.
Perhaps even more interesting to the student of the history of the Great War is Preston’s analysis of reactions on the US, England and Germany. While there was blame all around – from the US’s unacknowledged bias toward Britain, to the Royal Navy’s fudging of records – newly available German records show the Imperial Navy’s commitment to unrestricted use of submarine warfare and their unwillingness to respect the international agreement to “stop and search” commercial liners.
This volume provides a riveting read as well as adding significantly to our understanding of this pivotal event the American path toward war.
I’ve just finished John Dean’s biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding, American president from 1921 to 1923[i], and I am struck by the parallels between that period almost exactly 100 years ago with the political drama playing out today.
(For those of you who haven’t read Dean’s book, I should say here that I am not making the obvious reference to the scandals that plagued Harding’s last year in office and the decade after his death. With the rediscovery of his presidential papers[ii], thought to have been destroyed by his widow, a new image of Harding and his presidency emerges in this biography.)
Warren Harding was, by all accounts, a handsome man who looked presidential — perhaps no parallel here — and who spoke in easy if not profound platitudes. (William McAdoo described his “bloviating” thus: “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and over work.”[iii])
The intelligentsia were not impressed:
“The New Republic called Harding ‘…without strength of character, without administrative experience, without knowledge of international politics, without any of those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary conditions for statesmanlike leadership.’ ” [iv]
Harding was a businessman, having owned and run the Marion, Ohio, Star newspapers for some years, and he was exquisitely aware of the problems plaguing the American economy after the World War – hundreds of thousands of men returning all at once to the work force, threats to agriculture and other sectors from stabilizing European markets, labor unrest, and the burden of emergency war taxation. The League of Nations had been voted down in Congress, and Harding offered voters a chance to turn their focus inward. He said:
“[We must] make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to live for and revere America first.”[v]
He might have added, let’s make America great again.
“Harding … talk[ed] about his new favorite subject — Americanism, which had become something of a Republican mantra in 1920. What was Americanism? When asked, Republican senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania said, ‘Damned if I know, but you will find it a damn good issue to get votes in an election.”[vi]
His focus on Americanism brought two corollaries with it. Dean describes the first:
“Nativism, that ugly sister of nationalism, had emerged in the aftermath of the war [World War I]. Foreigners were suspect and unwanted. The fact that they were taking jobs during a time of serious unemployment aggravated the nation’s nativistic mood and produced almost universal support … for restricting immigration.” [vii]
The result was Per Centum Law, signed on May 19, 1921, which limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.
The second corollary was more complex and had consequences for every American. Harding began his term as a supporter of strong tariffs to protect the interests of American business. As he studied the problem with the help of economist William S. Culbertson, his views became more nuanced and he advocated a tariff policy with restrictions that could be adjusted to respond to changes in American and foreign markets. Dean again:
“By July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board…. Harding soon found that the new law was not sufficiently flexible to prevent repercussions, and agriculture was first to suffer from the high tariffs, followed soon by other industries in later years…. While in office [Harding] remained favorable to protective tariffs. So too did his successors (Coolidge and Hover), until the American financial system collapsed in 1929, with tariffs playing their own role in the financial market’s crash.” [viii](Emphasis mine.)
After his election, it was Harding’s desire to bring a business-like management to the federal government. To give credit where it’s due, he established the Office of the Budget and Management and combined three competitive organizations into the new Veteran’s Administration. Both of these actions resulted in savings and increased efficiency.
He was soon to learn, however, that running the government had little in common with running a family business, and the hands-on approach that had worked well in Marion, OH, was less effective in the Oval Office. His determination to master his ever-increasing workload most certainly hastened his death by heart failure three years into his term.
Can we say with Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
[i] John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (The American President Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor), New York, Henry Holt & Company, 2004.