muldoonWilliam Muldoon was built like a Greek God. In an era that saw women afraid to reveal even their ankles beneath a long skirt, the “Solid Man” wasn’t afraid to show a little skin. Even as far back as the 1880’s, at the dawn of professionalism in sports, wrestlers already needed gimmicks to sell bouts to the masses. Muldoon, for his part, was leading the way. He was a gifted wrestler but a better salesman. His gimmick was dressing as a Roman gladiator. Before bouts he was photographed in a loincloth and sandals, often naked from the waist up. He was a man who knew gimmicks, and with the gladiator getup, he was taking iconography to the next level.  Donald Mrozek, author of Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, thinks Muldoon was onto something that resonated with his audience. Muldoon’s costumes suggested that he was something more than a mere man. His sculpted body was the proof:

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My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

You’ve got a new book out, Lincoln’s Battle, the Spielberg movie is hot at the box office — why are we still so fascinated by Lincoln?

I think Lincoln is beloved because he dealt with such massive issues. What other president faced the complete dissolution of the Union? The enslavement of millions? Ordering men into battle on that scale? More men died in the Civil War than all the other American wars combined. And, in one sense, it’s Lincoln’s doing. At least partially. When a president contends with war and other huge issues, he’s usually considered a great president. Truman left office with the lowest ratings ever, but now he’s considered a hero because history is kind to those who had to battle titanic issues. But I think there are two other issues that make him beloved. First of all, he’s got what I call the “Kennedy factor.” Most people tend to impose their own values on Kennedy. So if they are pro-defense or social justice-oriented or if they just like a stylish, imperial presidency, they look to Kennedy. Lincoln’s that way. You want the humorous Lincoln? You got him. You want the liberal, big government Lincoln? You got him. The Constitutional, conservative Lincoln?  Poetic Lincoln? You got him. Second,Lincoln is so incredibly fascinating, so incredibly flawed, so incredibly tragic — that he is endearing to us.

In the late 1990s, my Dad, who had just turned 70, was being interviewed by a very young nurse. She read in his record that he was a veteran. She asked which war he had served in: “Desert Storm?” No, Dad said. Guess again. “Vietnam?” No. “Well, then, which one?” Dad told her that he had served in the Civil War. “I’ve never met a Civil War veteran!” she exclaimed. Later, my Mom heard this nurse telling her colleagues, “Did you know that Mr. Bieler was in the Civil War?”

 

Mitt Romney is staking his presidential candidacy on his long business career and the values reflected in the photograph below, taken from a Bain Capital Christmas card in the 1980s. If recent polls are any indication, a majority of American voters might be ready to buy in.

December 20, 1860


South Carolina’s Secession Convention was called to order in Columbia on the 17th.  For some delegates, this was a moment reached after a forty day sprint, and for others after a trek three decades in length, but all had come to proclaim their liberty and to sire a new nation, and the air was filled with promise and glory. “To dare! And again to dare! And without end to dare,” said the president of the convention, the scholar-planter D.F. Jamison, invoking the noble Danton’s defiance of the enemies of France. Inspired by his words, the convention then took as its first order of business the question of whether if it might dare move itself to Charleston. An outbreak of smallpox had erupted concurrently with the arrival of the delegates. Rumor had it that abolitionists had contaminated a box of rags with the disease in an effort to decapitate the rebellion, and many delegates thought it would be prudent to hightail the convention to Charleston on the four o’clock train. No, protested the longtime fire-eater William Porcher Miles, his voice acquiring the tone of a keyless bridegroom confronting a locked bed chamber on his wedding night. “We must not allow mockers to say that we were prepared to face a world in arms, but that we ran away from the smallpox.” The suitably chagrined delegates then voted unanimously to promise they would consider secession just as soon as they got to Charleston, but for now there was the matter of that train.

After being greeted in smallpoxless Charleston with applause, band music and a fifteen-gun salute, the delegates invested two days in procedures. Shortly after one o’clock on the 20th, however, the critical vote was cast, and by unanimous decision, South Carolina declared its independence. On the streets, delirium prevailed. As the bells of St. Michael’s Church pealed, the taverns disgorged their roisterers, who sang and marched and shot rockets into the air.

In the evening, a more solemn celebration was held.  At 6:30, the members of the convention marched in ceremonious procession to the venerable Institute Hall, Jamieson at their head. He carried the official Secession Ordinance, a 23 inch by 28 inch rectangle of thick linen parchment which had been inscribed with the statement of dissolution and stamped with the great silver Seal of the State of South Carolina. As the procession entered the hall, a crowd of 3000 shouted and whistled its approval. Reverend John Bachman then blessed the proceedings, and the delegates were summoned forward, alphabetically by election district, to sign the document. It took about to hours for all 169 delegates to affix their names.

Ninety percent of these men are slave owners.  Sixty percent of them own at least twenty slaves. Forty percent of them own at least fifty. Sixteen percent of them own a hundred slaves or more.

The final delegate to sign was the former governor, John Laurence Manning. Like Moses holding the tablets of Decalogue, Manning lifted the Ordinance above his head. Flanked by two palmetto trees, he was joined in this tableau by Jamieson, who proclaimed South Carolina to be an independent commonwealth. The members of the crowd cheered and cheered, and once the proceeding adjourned, pressed forward. Searching for souvenirs of the great moment, they began stripping the palmettos of their razor-sharp fronds, which they then waved about their heads like Napoleon’s mamelukes as they surged from the auditorium and waded into the pandemonium of the streets.

In Washington, a mood far more somber prevailed. The holiday season, normally an occasion for gaiety, has acquired a distinctly gloomy cast. Friends of decades’ standing now find themselves on opposite sides; men and women whose fathers stood with Washington on the battlefields of the revolution cannot bear to meet one another’s eye. Northerners visit only Northerners, and Southerners the same; and even at those occasions, the mood is heavy.

There was one party, however, that would not be postponed, that of the wedding of John Bouligny, the popular Congressman from Louisiana and one of the very few officials from the deep South who opposed secession, to Mary Parker, daughter of Washington’s wealthiest grocer.  The bride’s father had produced a magnificent spectacle, filling his large home with roses and lilies and illuminated fountains. The president came, joined by his niece Harriet Lane, and was the first to kiss the bride. It was a happy event in a beautiful setting, reminiscent of so many other happy events and beautiful settings the president had enjoyed in his younger days as a diplomat in Russia and Great Britain. But soon the mood was broken by a commotion instigated by the entrance of Lawrence Keitt, the brash, bombastic, recently resigned congressman of South Carolina. Jumping, bellowing, waving a piece of paper over his head,  he shouted “Thank God!” again and again. Finally he elaborated. “South Carolina has succeeded! Here’s the telegram! I feel like a boy let out of school.”

When eyes at last left the jubilant Keitt, they fell on Buchanan, his face ashen, who slumped in his chair as though he had been struck. “Madam,” he at last said, “might I beg you to have my carriage called?” And with that he returned to the White House, to resume his time on the rack.

Where did you get the idea to write And the War Came?

Watching Chris Matthews talk about Christine O’Donnell, who, in case you may have already forgotten, was briefly famous last year for being a Tea Party insurgent who won the Delaware Republican primary. I realized that when most of us study history, we read about great figures and landmark moments, and it can get really boring really fast because everything is chiseled in marble and written in granite, and it doesn’t seem real. Whereas the way we experience politics in our daily lives is with tumult and energy, with nobodies vying for attention and often eclipsing truly significant people, with bad ideas outshouting good ones. And in no period was this more true than in the six months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and the bombardment of Fort Sumter.


How so?

This was the most intensely political period in American history. There were four candidates in the election of 1860. Lincoln won less than forty percent of the vote. Only a late surge by Lincoln in New York kept the election from being thrown into the House of Representatives. After that, the states began thinking about secession. The usual phrase we hear is “The South seceded.” In fact, there were 15 states where slavery was illegal, and so there were fifteen separate debates about what to do. Several went quickly, but four of the states did not secede at all. Virginia and Tennessee at first voted against secession before voting for it. The slaveholding faction almost certainly resorted to vote fraud to take Georgia out, and there was practically a coup in Virginia before the governor supported secession.

Opinion in the north was just as divided. New York business interests wanted to appease the south. Abolitionist New Englanders said good riddance. A faction thought they should let the slave states leave in peace, confident that they would come crawling back. And others believed that the Union was worth preserving, and that these rebels should not be permitted to have their way.


Do you see similarities between that time and today?

Sure. The capacity of people to lie is the same. The capacity of people to act on their fears is the same. The capacity of people to self-dramatize and then believe their own bullshit is the same. And the capacity for people to misjudge how bad things can become is just the same.

Most people in the North did not believe the slaveholders were serious; they had heard this secession song before. Most people in the South could not believe that the North would fight, and those who did were sure that the South would win within a matter of months, this despite the south being much poorer, much less industrialized, and far outnumbered. As a result, they got a war that killed 620,000 men. It reminds me of this debt crisis debate, which is full of people who are placing a narrow interest over the country’s general good, and who refuse to imagine the catastrophe of default.


What surprised you the most in your research?

I was surprised to recognize how nakedly this war was a rebellion created by slaveholders, for slaveholders, which was then sold to non-slaveholding southerners—who were the vast majority of the population—that this was an attack on their freedom and their way of life. The slaveholding interests had held enormous power in early America, but with the settlement of the west, the influx of European immigrants, and the growth of industrialization, the planters of the South had reached the zenith of their influence. They wanted to break away, have their own nation, conquer territory in the Caribbean and Central America, and establish a vast slaveholding empire that controlled cotton and sugar, two of the world’s most desirable commodities. This was not a secret; they made it clear in their speeches. They miscalculated, they blundered, they laid waste to their society, they brought carnage to their communities.

And still there are people in the South who accord them and their cause great honor, and a general vestigial honor that lingers. In Tennessee, for example, there is a state park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who, besides being a Confederate general, was a slave trader before the war, and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Is there no one else Tennessee could think to honor?


What figures did you find the most interesting?

It is fascinating to watch the inexperienced Lincoln get his act together; he clearly underestimated the South’s seriousness, and was behind events through most of this period. It is fascinating to watch the weakness of President Buchanan, and to see selfish men taking advantage of that weakness, and stronger men try to fill the void. I am personally drawn to the Christine O’Donnell types—actors with small parts who momentarily appear but influence the drama: the Gourdin brothers of Charleston, who stage-manage South Carolina’s secession, for example; or Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, who alone among Lincoln’s cabinet, advocates fighting for Fort Sumter, and carries the day; or Katie Skillen, the teenage daughter of an army sergeant who was in an arsenal in Charleston that was taken over by rebel militia. When they replaced the US flag with one of their own, she began crying.

“Don’t be afraid,” a member of the militia assured her. “Nobody shall hurt you.”

“I’m not at all afraid,” she shot back. “I’m mad to see our flag go down and that dirty thing take its place.” The drama, the passion, the intensity—that’s what I love.



The Informers coverTHE INFORMERS

I am ashamed to admit that until I read Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers (Riverhead, 2009), my impressions of the author’s native Colombia came largely from multiple adolescent viewings of the Kathleen Turner-Michael Douglas movie Romancing the Stone.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.

The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.

When I was little, my parents and I would watch television together. Usually, our TV diet consisted of evening news, Jeopardy! at 7:30, and  if I was lucky  an 8pm show like MacGuyver or Full House. But for a few nights in September of 1990, my parents let me stay up a little bit later than usual to watch something entirely different: a PBS documentary about the Civil War.

Mania!

By Ryan Day

Essay

When I was 10 we lived in Augusta, Georgia. A friend of my mom’s adopted a baby. The baby was a giant. Not literally a giant. It was neither jolly nor green, nor iron, but it was a really big baby. My mom’s friend insisted that the agency told her that the father was a professional wrestler. She was convinced, due to the size of the baby, and the strangely morose eyes that sat above big black half moons, that the father was the Undertaker. This was a serious point of pride for the mother, not to mention a really cool origin story for a kid that may one day need one.