Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alvin, Henry Luce, and their times

“You don’t know what it was like to work for Henry Luce!” Alvin blurted, and ran from the room to fetch an old folder. Alvin, Betty, daughter Allison and I were in the Josephy family living room in Greenwich, looking at home movies which had been transferred to a VCR tape. The scene was Mexico in the mid fifties. The kids—teenager Diane and the younger Alvin, Allison, and Kathy—were cavorting for the camera in and around a gorgeous swimming pool. The camera occasionally switched to a pipe smoking Alvin, wearing a bathing suit, hunched over a typewriter set on a small table at the edge of the pool.

I knew that Alvin had been working for Time Magazine when he found the Nez Perce story, that he had been waiting in Los Angeles to go to Utah to do a story on that state when a telegram from Henry Luce, whose flight had been forced down in Boise, advised him to “forget Utah and do Idaho.” Alvin’s subsequent trip to Idaho included small plane hopping around that state, visits with dignitaries in Lewiston, and meeting the Nez Perce at Lapwai.

Later, in A Walk Toward Oregon, I would get the full story of his post WW II work for a Luce owned string of Southern California newspapers, their collapse and his time with friend Herb Chase, who bought seven of the 30 in the string, and, finally, and his move back East to take a job with Time.

He was to do a weekly “News in Pictures” feature and less frequent color specials with Time’s major departments—medicine, business, art, etc. He would be there throughout the 1950s, and, by Alvin’s own account, he was a promoter of American progress and development, lauding nuclear power, dam and levee building, intense forest cutting and management, and other things that contributed to a “World of Tomorrow” vision he had carried since seeing General Motors’ immense Futurama exhibit at the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

There were glitches at Time and with Luce. A big color special on the Crusades that Alvin and his photographers had spent months preparing was personally axed by Luce, who wanted no reminders of the Crusades, “Christendom’s greatest defeat.”At the time, Luce was campaigning editorially against the Mossadegh government in Iran, where the popularly elected Prime Minister was nationalizing the oil industry and generally taking an anti-Western stance. Luce, the son of Christian missionaries, wanted no reminders of Islam’s triumphs.

And he did not want a story on Southwest Indian art, or anything Indian. Luce was an assimilationist, who thought Indians should just get on with it and join the conquering main stream. Holdouts, in his mind, were “phonies,” and Time would not treat with them.

The great irony of course is that Time and Luce got Alvin to Idaho and the Nez Perce story, and although he worked on for another eight or nine years at Time, while gradually increasing his own interest in Indians and a different view of Western development, he would eventually break with the magazine and its views of Indians and America, take a job at American Heritage, and write books and magazine articles on Indians and a more sustainable view of man and the natural world.

At the home movies that night in Greenwich, we were still in Time mode, and the sight of Alvin typing away in his bathing suit had me in stitches. “Now there’s a workaholic!” I opined. Betty and Allison joined in, and Alvin ran from the room and retrieved the weathered folder, which held a 60 page report on the social and economic conditions in mid-fifties Mexico. The price of a month-long family vacation in Mexico was apparently this “background” report on conditions in the country, not for publication, but for Luce’s edification.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Over and over again

I finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams, and despite the fact that he omits early colonial dealings with Native peoples, I enjoyed it immensely. It was good to see and hear how narrow the passages to the government we got were—how, as McCullough says in other places, things could have turned out differently.

And although I had heard and probably mouthed myself the centrality of slavery to the American story, I liked how McCullough—through Adams—brings the issue forward with the compromises in the composition of the Declaration of Independence, Washington and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, and Adams’ disgust with it all. According to McCullough, Adams was willing to compromise with the southern colonies in order to form and hold the new union, but it always troubled him. He had dreams of blacks and whites slaughtering each other, and feared that “a struggle between the states over slavery ‘might rend this mighty fabric in twain.’”

In later years, when old differences with Jefferson were repaired in their famous correspondence, he suggested to Jefferson that he free his slaves. But Jefferson, who believed slavery a “moral and political depravity,” feared the results of sudden emancipation, and looked for it to happen gradually under the watch of younger men. At his death, he freed but few of his own slaves, and the rest were sold at auction.

It seems odd that slavery could occupy the moral deliberations of two of the founding fathers to such an extent, while the situation with Native inhabitants is in many ways hidden, or neglected, or not thought about. In Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, he gives examples of significant, and often friendly, interactions of Indians and Europeans on first contact—think of the early New Englanders getting farming help and new crops from the Indians, of trappers working with Indians as they moved West, etc.—which are then followed by conflict and removal.

Josephy said that from the get-go there were three attitudes towards Indians: One, romanticize them as true children of nature; two, kill or remove them to make room for a new, superior civilization; or three, assimilate them, make them white. He spent his working life exploring how these three ways played out in history—while simultaneously marveling at the miracle of tribal survival and promoting their full participation, as Indians, in the American experiment.

On finishing Adams, I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and here I find Indians. I find meetings with Indians, and the Albany Plan for Union, put forward by Franklin and inspired in part by the Iroquois Federation. Was Franklin one of the romanticizers? Did Franklin and Adams never discuss this? And, most importantly, how was the Indian situation different than the situation with slavery?

I think what Alvin was telling us, over and over again, is that Indians were here, and despite all attempts to eradicate them and make them white, are still here. And that it is important for us, as a nation, to put them back into our past as we listen to them in our present. So I am compelled to find out what Franklin thought.

And I think too about Indians always being here, and our country as a nation of immigrants—white, black, brown, yellow; European, Asian, African, Islander—who have come to live among them. That is a different narrative than McCullough’s. Will there be some of it in Franklin?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Invisible Indians

I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.

And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.

Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)

As a result of the Paris Peace Treaty, the boundaries of the new nation ran to the Mississippi River, and now we come to Indians. According to McCullough, “Approximately half the territory of the United States in 1789 was still occupied by American Indians, most of whom lived west of the Appalachians, and though no one knew how many there were, they probably numbered 100,000.”

Where did he get the number? His old colleague, Alvin Josephy, had estimated 6-8 million Indians in North America back in 1968, 33 years before McCullough’s book was published. Maybe that stretch of “unknown” (by whites) land from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi held just a sliver of the millions; maybe more. But how did he know?

More importantly, how could he write a book about the foundation of the country with no attention to its original inhabitants? The index lists two references to “Indian wars,” but when you turn to the pages, you find him naming the French and Indian War, with no
discussion of its Indian participants.

And, although there are pages on the relationship between Franklin and Adams, including the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, there is nothing of Franklin’s time spent among the Iroquois. It is from another book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, that I learn that Franklin had proposed an “Albany Plan of Union” based on ideas from the Iroquois League, in 1754! “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages” says Franklin, “should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

Franklin’s plan was rejected, but, according to Loewen, it was a “forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery.” We don’t know what—or whether—Adams thought about these things.

McCullough is not alone. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. failed to mention the removal of Indians from the American Southeast, the horrible and illegal—Jackson defied the Supreme Court—series of events we now know as "The Trail of Tears." Historian Michael Phillips says that Schlesinger “couldn't reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn't happen.”

That was in 1945; McCullough’s book was published in 2001. In between, Alvin Josephy worked hard to tell us what did happen, to make Indians visible again. There is still work to be done.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Learning to be a librarian

Learning to be a librarian

When Alvin Josephy started talking about leaving his books to Fishtrap all those years ago, I nodded and envisioned a nice addition to the Fishtrap house with shelves of books, a file cabinet or two, study carrels, and a stream of poets and historians pulling books off the shelves and making new poems and stories with their help. Over time, in conversations with Fishtrap friends and with a small grant from the Lamb Foundation, the vision gained an artist’s rendering (see top of the blog page) and an architect’s plans.

And then the real world and a recession hit, money from foundations that had seemed “ready” became impossible, and, eventually, I settled in to try to make sense of Library holdings, mission, and possibilities. I started learning to be a librarian, and envisioning the eventual physical home receded into some far off mist.

So now I wrestle with whether we finish cataloging books—or concentrate on papers and ephemera. And how do we make the information we have available? How important is a complete bibliography of Alvin’s work? And, most importantly, never mind the books—what do I do with Alvin Josephy’s legacy as historian and activist on behalf of American Indians? “Alvin, I thought you were leaving me a bunch of books, but all this?” I say to myself as he watches over my shoulder.

I talk about these things with writers, historians and library friends all the time. And just last week, had a nice meeting at Lewis and Clark College with Special Collections librarian Doug Erickson and friend Kim Stafford.

Doug’s office desk sits in a corner of the room that houses the William Stafford Collection. In the opposite corner there is an odd-shaped Plexiglas enclosure with a seat in it and wires running out of it to a stool-full of electronic gear. It was some kind of medical deal that Doug picked up on EBay for $150 and turned into a mini recording studio. Among other things, he records poets for his “Oregon Poetic Voices” project. I know a bit about that, because Fishtrap was an original partner, and you can go right to that site and hear Ursula LeGuin read poetry in 1990 at Summer Fishtrap. Try it:

But the big aha moment for me in the talk with Doug and Kim is that libraries and archives are not just collections of old dusty stuff. They are things you work with now. And Doug says that Mitt Romney was right—rich folks get their words and ideas recorded all the time. Doug wants the poems your grandma wrote—or the ones you write.

Which takes me back to Alvin looking over my shoulder. He determined to write the Nez Perce book AFTER he found the Indian voices collected by an oddball Washington rancher named Lucullus McWhorter and published by another oddball, an old fashioned freedom of the press publisher from England who found his way to, of all places, Caldwell, Idaho, and founded Caxton Press. And published Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs.

In the twelve years it took to research and write The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest, Alvin also found three remaining veterans of the Nez Perce War he could talk to, the Sohon drawings from the 1855 Walla Walla treaties, which were hidden away at the Washington State Historical Society, and other obscure stuff—revealed in the footnotes of the book (their omission the reason he always hated the abridged version of same)

So my next library project is to bring a real live archivist to town to train me and other volunteers in the ways of preserving these other voices against the time the next Alvin comes along.