Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nearly Forgotten Wagnerians

For those of us who love Wagner and the artists who make his works come to life, few performers fail to make an impression on us and live in our memories long after their retirement or passing. However, I realize that my memory is much longer than most Wagner lovers today.  Some of the artists who stand at the forefront of my memory may just be names to anyone born after 1975. I try to listen to the contemporary artists performing on today's stage, but with few exceptions I do not find replacements for those with whom I grew up and with whom I began my Wagnerian adventures. I truly enjoy Stuart Skelton's performances (when I can find them) and Catherine Hunold's is a magnificent voice that needs to be exploited.
What can one say about Jonas Kaufmann that has not already been said?  The same goes for Nina Stemme.

However, when one drifts back in time, names that should come to mind as easily as Schorr, Melchior, and Flagstad--whether because of their placement in time, the world history surrounding them, or the misfortune of not being at the right place at the right time for recording purposes--seem to be slipping from many Wagnerians' consciousness.  Theo Adam's fairly recent death has allowed many of us the luxury of recalling his work--during his career he sang nearly every deep role in the Wagner canon.  We can find him as Wotan, we can find him as Alberich. Here he is as Sachs:
Sadly, the voice of Herman Uhde is nearly forgotten. Like Adam, Uhde was unhesitating about singing any of the lower Wagnerian roles--one of my favorites is his Klingsor, but he also sang Amfortas, Wotan, Alberich, Gunther, and Telramund.  Compare his dark, menacing voice as he sings with Astrid Varnay:
Whether the unlucky fact that his birthdate sentenced him to spend his twenties and thirties in Nazi Germany, where he sang the heldentenor roles, had anything to do with his slipping from our memories, I cannot say. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht late in the war and then captured in France by the Allies.  Upon repatriation, he turned to the the baritone and bass roles.  Throughout the 1950s he was a regular at Bayreuth.  I suspect that it is here that he branched out by taking a variety of roles because of the dominance of George London at the Festival.  Uhde managed to get a contract from Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan where he sang for 12 seasons and took part in 60 performances.  His is a great voice, but if anyone from the younger generations today remembers him, they do so because of his death--on stage during a performance in Copenhagen.

What Rudy Bing gave, he was also able to take away.  That is the fate of the next artist whom I wish to mention. We know that Mr. Bing released Melchior from the Met.  We know that Bing refused to offer Fischer-Dieskau a contract.  What many have forgotten is that Bing also terminated the contract of Melchior's favorite soprano.  Helen Traubel is one of the greatest American voices. Most Wagnerians know the name, but few have taken time to get to know the voice.  She is just the Soprano who took Flagstad's place during the war and was not needed when Birgit Nilsson came on the scene.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Traubel was an intelligent and sensitive individual who turned down the first offer that she got from the Met because SHE felt she needed more training. Ten years later the Met wanted her again, but the marriage almost did not happen because she now wanted to sing Sieglinde and the Met already had Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence to sing the Wagner roles.  Within two years, Flagstad had returned to Europe where she remained during the war and Lawrence had her career severely limited when she contracted polio.  Traubel burst onto the scene with a voice that was able to sing with and against the heldetenor of Melchior.  Her voice was strong when needed, delicate when called upon to be, and liquid in its ability to maintain the legato line--in my memory, her voice shares the qualities of Gundula Janowitz and Waltraud Meier. That is a stretch few artists can make.  When we see her pictures, she looks more like Margaret Dumont (Groucho Marx's victim in so many films) than she does a Hollywood starlet.  Both she and Melchior belonged to the Park and Bark school of singing--but that was the tradition at the time.  What is amazing is that the woman also was a top night-club attraction, movie star, and mystery writer (notice I did not say novelist--I do not think those are the same things).  She had a voice to rival Flagstad. Those who took her place, Martha Modl and Astrid Varnay, could never match the flowing liquid registers. Birgit Nilsson's laser voice, while strong and intimidating, could not match the subtleties of Traubel's.  Why, then, did Bing fire her?  He found out that she was performing in New York Night Clubs and that was not the image he expected from a Metropolitan star.
I fear that this great voice will slip into one of those cracks in history caught between those who came before her and those who came after.  She was much more than just a place holder.

I do not fear that the last artist will be forgotten, only that he will not be remembered as the great Wagnerian that he was.  Because of Rudolf Bing, Americans never got to know the operatic side of this artist, except through operatic recordings, but as Conrad L. Osborne and Dale Harris were quick to point out in the late 1960s, there seemed to be one of those a month.  Many Wagnerians say the Fischer-Dieskau's voice was too lyric for Wagner.  I would only point out that those  whom the same Wagnerians consider the great Wagner conductors were the ones who consistently chose Fischer-Dieskau for their recordings.  If we start with Furtwangler, we see that he chose Fischer-Dieskau in the famous Tristan recording that set the standard we still seek to equal today. Carlos Kleiber chose Fischer-Dieskau to reprise Kurnewal in his recording of Tristan. Knappertsbusch was the conductor of all of those 1950s Bayreuth Parsifals, but the one that stands out is the 1956 recording with Fischer-Dieskau as Amfortas.  Solti did not hesitate to have Fischer-Dieskau reprise this part in his recording of Parsifal. The Konwitschny's Dutchman features Fischer-Dieskau and is the recording that Robert Hall and James Morris both say they studied most closely before taking on the role. Any time that Bernstein wished to sing an example to his orchestra he always prefaced his singing by reminding them that he was no Fischer-Dieskau.  Like Uhde, Fischer-Dieskau had to serve in the Wehrmacht and was also a POW. But unlike Uhde, Fischer-Dieskau was nearly 15 years younger, and did not lose much of his career to the war.  As a result, his voice was still young and vibrant in the time when the LP became the recording medium.  Many his recordings were lieder recordings, so the reputation grew quickly.  What people have missed is that Fischer-Dieskau's lieder performances reflect his opera work--his eyes, his body, his acting ability, and his good sense is present in both.

Somehow the past slips away.  We must always strive to hold greatness close to us or it too will be gone.  Some things are irreplaceable.




Saturday, August 2, 2014

In a Fighting Mood

Everyone seems to be trying to pick a fight with me these days.  Oh, not intentionally, but for some reason, everything I currently read “gets my dander” up and makes me want to fight.

First, the eschatological pronouncements of Peter Gelb predicting the end of opera in our time are a perfect example.  Here is an individual hired to direct the major American Opera Company—the company once led by Gatti, Edward Johnson, Schuyler Chapin, and Joseph Volpe, and nearly destroyed by Rudolf Bing.  Gelb seems to be working overtime to emulate the destructive behavior of Bing.  Gelb’s latest pronouncement of opera’s demise is the result of labor problems and disputes complicated by the director’s avariciously accepting a salary of $1.8 million! in 2012 while parsimoniously trying to get the various union members to take paycuts. This is the same little dictator who tried to prevent freedom of speech in the Metropolitan’s own publication—Opera News.  Yes, he has brought productions to audiences worldwide through the HD broadcasts—one wonders where that income went?  Yes, he has mounted new, lavish productions that attracted new audiences, but also drained the coffers.  Now, in what has become a new American tradition, one side in an honorably agreed upon legal commitment seeks to abrogate the resulting legal contract because—whether the result of mismanagement, weak economic conditions, or outright arrogant stubbornness—the terms are suddenly inconvenient.    Gelb says the Met will be bankrupt in two years.  Hmm, are there no other cost cutting possibilities or revenue-earning potentialities except to default on a legally binding contract?  Every production that I see, has an underwriter.  Every new production is the result of a gift from some foundation or benefactor. The math does not add up; the Unions should demand to “see the books” before considering anything! 

This is the same sort of hocus-pocus that American state and local governments are pulling on their own employees.  Government workers from public works to teachers have bargained in good faith to hammer out fair and just medical plans, evaluation plans, and retirement plans.  Led by Wisconsin and Illinois these legal contracts are under attack and have been eliminated or altered not by renegotiation but by fiat.  Worse yet, state courts established at the birth of the nation to protect the law have upheld these actions.  The results have been lost pension plans, loss of health benefits, and ridiculous evaluation systems that measure employees on things over which they have no control (i.e. teachers being evaluated on the test results of student whom they do not teach).
Since such methods seem to work in the public sector, Mr. Gelb assumes they will also work in the private sector.  He threatens to lockout his employees—contracts be damned.  The days of the powerful unions are over.  States have been able to circumvent their legal responsibilities because public sector unions have been allowed to deteriorate.  There are no “strike funds” to supplement lost wages should the union members attempt to fight back. 

Perhaps Mr. Gelb should donate half of his salary back to the Metropolitan.  I am sure that nearly a million dollars would certainly help the situation.  Fight number 1.

Fight number 2.
Imagine my joy upon opening my email yesterday to read the Boulezian’s review of the Bayreuth Siegfried.  I was leery at first since the first picture on the page showed the Woodland harpy ready to swoop down on a hobo, who apparently was Siegfried.  As I read the review, I realized the Dr. Berry got it exactly right.  In fact, I could not have written a better, more intelligent condemnation of this piece of Regie trash.  Finally, I thought, I have won Dr. Berry over to the light, he now sees the incongruity of such productions that have nothing to do with either the philosophy or the story being told.  I have made him a believer in the integrity of the text.  He has become a convert to the exegetical study of the libretto.

Then I opened my email this morning, and there was the Boulezian’s review of the Bayreuth Lohengrin.  I spilled my morning coffee as I read how nice it was to return to a traditional production!  Excuse me Mark.  Since when does five years or less constitute tradition?  Since when do mice or rats or whatever they are have a place in 10th century romance? What tradition?

My problem is not really with Dr. Berry.  My problem and my fight is with Bayreuth.  With all of recent history’s negatives weighing on your festival, why do you persist in mounting operas your founder would not recognize as his? Wagner tried to lift art to new levels—higher and higher.  You seem to be trying to turn it into pop art, popular culture, “performance art.” Please, get back to basics. Stop producing crap that only Helen Keller could endure, and please, oh please, do not let Mr. Meese destroy Parsifal.

End of Fight 2

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Parsifal and Religion

Parsifal and Religion

So many people have so many views of Richard Wagner that trying to sort out the various opinions is impossible.  Sadly, the majority of these viewpoints are based on misconceptions, hearsay, and (I regret to say it) ignorance.  I despair that historical events have made it impossible to get beyond the anti-Semitism of Wagner’s nonartistic writing.  We could level the same charge against the vast majority of Europeans from the medieval period to the middle of the twentieth century, but Wagner put his thoughts in print.  Such ideas are as disgusting to us today as the racist comments, outlooks, and prejudices that linger with us yet, or the homophobic irrationality of contemporary society, or the colonial superiority not only expressed but acted on in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  To single out Wagner for his prejudice is to be influenced more by Hitler than by G.B. Shaw, Ernest Newman, Willa Cather, Herman Levy, or Daniel Barenboim.  Despite articles and books to the contrary, I would assert that anyone who finds anti-Semitic material in Wagner’s operas, has brought it there and imposed it upon the works.  This is unlike the beautiful, thoughtful, elegant prose of Josef Conrad, which is based on the Colonial world and according to Chinua Achebe is rife with racism.

On the other hand we find those who, like a music appreciation professor (and fundamentalist Christian) I once hired for my College, would not listen to Wagner’s music because the composer was an Atheist. One day in a discussion with her I remarked that I found it sad that Europe went to war over something so irrelevant as the wording of the Nicene Creed.  Her response was that that was not trivial and certainly was war worthy.  Needless to say the discussion ended there. 

Wagner’s religious beliefs seemed to change and vary with time.  We should not be surprised, since this is perhaps the most human of traits.  Emerson told us “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”   If we do not change our ideas and beliefs, then surely we are not growing as human beings, learning new things, or experiencing the world.  In his younger years in Dresden, Wagner was an acquaintance of the Russian Revolutionary Bakunin, certainly no proponent of organized religion. Between 1851 and 1853 Wagner discovered and read several times Das Wesen des Christentums by a follower of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach.  Feuerbach determined that man created God rather than the other way around. By doing this, he opened the door for Schopenhauer to keep any specific references to God out of his noumenal world.  In this philosophical atmosphere, Wagner intuits Schopenhauer’s ideas and invokes the concepts of suffering, love, and sacrifice (of the ego) as the means to one’s true place in the universe.

Wagner ultimately recognized that the model of the supreme sacrifice was the Pauljne vision of “Jesus the Christ.”   Since the fourth century, this was the only version that Europe knew.  The Cathers had some other ideas, but they were quickly quashed. But with one exception the Christianity that Paul watered down in order to spread among the gentiles was the only Christianity in Europe. Anyone who might now have the curiosity to look into the earliest history of the Church of Jerusalem might seek out Robert Eisenman’s text James, the Brother of Jesus, in order to see how through the first four hundred years and the establishment of a state religion by Constantine the followers of Paul strove to overwrite the history of their own organization, purposely confusing names and making up characters in order to misrepresent the actual characters.—to the point that Jesus’ mother Mary has a sister named Mary—sounds like the Bob Newhart Show to me—this is my brother Larry and my other brother Larry.

The influence of Buddhism was another factor in Wagner’s thinking.  Many trace his Vegetarianism to it, but it is also a source of the concept of sacrificing the ego for the sake of the whole: the oneness of spirit.

So the question becomes, why would a freethinker, a Schopenhaurean with Buddhist overtones write a Christian Opera stressing the Pauline ideals of communion, blood, and body all of which are outside the dogma of the original church. This question drove Nietzsche from Wagner’s circle of followers.  He thought Wagner had “sold out.” What perhaps Nietzsche missed is the very thing that Feuerbach said, “We create our own myths to explain our world.”  That is exactly what Wagner did in Parsifal. To avoid having to do too much explaining, he took the best-known story of sacrifice and used it as a backdrop for his story.  When he explained the Grail to King Ludwig, Wagner told him the story that was accepted in Europe and around which a great mythology had grown up. But in the opera, the Grail exists in the realm that is beyond time and space or in Schopenhaurean terms the noumenal realm, and while it contains the sacred blood, that blood is really the life force that connects all living things, after all it does extend the life of the Knights.  The erloser in the opera is assisted in his sacrifice by the Erloser, but Parsifal is never depicted as divine or supernatural—though he redeems the Grail Realm and saves Amfortas from the agony of the wound.  The Good Friday Spell allows Gurnemanz to illustrate the concept of sacrifice, but the emphasis is on the magic of rebirth that the sacrifice brings. On moves from the “me” to the “not me” and is reborn into (as Carlyle called it) the “Everlasting Yea.”   Just as importantly, the spear is the healing implement, and it was to save it that Parsifal wanders for 10 years in the wilderness keeping the weapon safe.  Wagner wisely removed any mention of the spear bleeding as Ernest Newman reports some of the early drafts suggested.  It is not the blood; it is the sacrifice that is important.

Not surprisingly, Wagner, who may or may not have been a Mason and hence questioning of the divinity of Jesus, chose to follow the tradition of housing the grail with a band of knights.  Tradition tells us that the Knight’s Templar were the guardians of the Grail and its secrets. The literature surrounding this group only leads to confusion when we attempt to identify what exactly they believed, but clearly these knights were concerned with John the Baptist (supposedly, they had his head) and with Mary Magdalene.  Wagner chooses to use these characters or rather their images in Parsifal, with Gurnemanz announcing the coming of the erloser and baptizing him, while Kundry anoints Parsifal with the contents of a vial.  Remember, the word “messiah” means the “anointed one.” The composer is connecting the dots for the audience.  Here is one who has sacrificed for the good of all. He has endured a curse. He has now come to take the reigns of the realm in order to complete his role. 


At one point Wagner began a manuscript for an opera about Jesus.  Reading through his notes, we see that he really cannot light the spark that would lift the material beyond the typical. His attention is on Mary Magdalene, but she is the supposed historical character, the repentant prostitute, who seeks to save the hero with her love.  Obviously there was just too much tradition here for even Wagner to overcome.  Fortunately, even though it took him to the end of his career, he found his way to take the “myth” and bend it to his outlook, his philosophy, and his mastery. The result was Parsifal.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Wagner's Women

Each of us, in his or her own ears, knows how the Wagner voices should sound.  The heroic voices probably capture us in our beginning fascination with the operas. In our heads we have a tone that matches the sound we expect from the heldentenor.  We sometimes forget that Siegmund does not sound exactly the same as Siegfried and Tannhauser is certainly different from Walther Von Stolzing. Still we know how we want the voices of these characters to sound.  We also have an "aural vision" of the heroic female voice--forgive my synesthesia.  Brunhilde, whether we hear Flagstad or Nilsson in the part, has a sound that we expect and love.  For many of us, these are the Wagner voices.

However, the operas are replete with other voices demanding our attention, especially in the women's roles.  Wagner presents us with characters whose voices act almost as foils for the strident, heroic voices of Brunhilde or Fricka. Perhaps the most difficult role in the Wagner panoply of characters is that of Brunhilde as she must transition from the strident warrior maiden of Die Walkure to the defenseless human maiden of Siegfried.  With the hero's kiss she awakens in full memory of her godhead, but then must realize her vulnerability and softness.  When we go to Gotterdammerung, the role changes once more as the character transitions from the vulnerable woman into the heroic, redeemer.  This must be an incredible challenge for any performer.

Wagner's other women, save Isolde, do not face such a great transformative challenge.  The composer sets before us a group of characters who share common traits, yet are certainly not carbon copies of each other.  While Elisabeth in Tannhauser must project the innocence and purity of this group of characters, she must at once be a foil to Venus but still have enough "grit and texture" to be a worthy adversary.  "Dich teure halle" requires both the pure, ethereal voice of the Virgin Elisabeth and the gritty jubilance of Venus' opposite.
 Consider the role of Sieglinde.  Wagner gave her the impossible job of being the gentle, but abused wife of Hunding who must sing note for note against the heroic Siegmund and then become the contrast to the heroic Brunhilde. For those of us old enough, we still hear the voice of Lotte Lehman, then of Regine Crespin.  To my ear, the voice that captures the essence of Sieglinde is Claire Watson.
The voice is sweet and reflects the passion of the character without trying to be the heroic voice of Brunhilde.  A similar character is Gutrune in whom Wagner mixes corruption with innocence; yet Gutrune is nearly the same voice--the voice of the other Wagner woman.  Anyone who has heard the Culshaw/Solti Gotterdammerung must relish Watson's performance coming as it does among the evil blackness of Frick's Hagen, Windgassen's strident Siegfried, and Fischer-Dieskau's treacherous Gunther.

The character who best exemplifies simple purity is Lohengrin's Elsa.  Wagner has her constantly sing in contrast to the other characters--the evil Ortrud, the faithless Telramund, and the heroic Lohengrin.  Even in her confusion and fear of the last act, she is the crystal clear voice of purity. Walter Pater described aesthetic beauty as a "cool, gemlike flame." That is a perfect description of Elsa's voice.

The excerpt presents the corruption of Ortrud in contrast with the innocence of Elsa. Gwyneth Jones is at her very worst (she was experiencing vocal problems at this time in the 1970s), but she does sound like a witch and, as a result, emphasizes the purity and beauty of Janowitz' Elsa.
Here is Janowitz again--this is the epitome of that other Wagner voice.
We hear the voice in Senta, Elizabeth, and Elsa. It is as haunting as the strident notes of Brunhilde, but it is the side of Wagner that many overlook.

That leaves two characters who combine all of Wagner's female voices. The first is Isolde, who begins the opera as the heroic, defiant woman bent on revenge and ends as the gentle lover extolling her feelings for her lost love.  The other is Kundry who must be the humble servant, the wild wood woman, the temptress, and the humble penitent. As we can see both roles require the performer to project both Wagner voices--the wild, heroic voice and the gentle, penitent or innocent voice.  The task is huge, and the performance is aided by a singer who can act.  In the 1940s and 50s, the conducting platforms of America were occupied by and large by Hungarian conductors who claimed that conducting was done as much with the eyes as with the baton.  The auditory art has a visual presence.  There is one particular singer who sings as much with her eyes as she does her voice and the skill she brings to these two roles allows us to understand the range that Wagner gave his female roles--there is more here than the heroic battle cry of the Walkure.
First, Isolde, but while listening, watch how the eyes speak to us.
Finally, Kundry--her voice speaks loudly although she need not sing a word.  Waltraude Meier's face, eyes, and gestures let us hear her perfectly.

Those who cannot hear the other voices of Wagner will still enjoy the operas, but oh what they miss, even when the voices are silent, but still singing.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Wagner, Reverse Composition


Wagner seems to have a penchant for writing the sequel before writing the original.  Remember his struggle as he worked backward from Siegfried's Tod to create the entire Ring.  His fifth or third opera (depending on whether one counts his earliest works) was an effort to write a German opera using the German folklore and the writings of Wolfram von Eshenbach.  Perhaps the character study that Wagner made of Wolfram as the composer drew the story of Tannhauser together inspired him to pursue the myths further.  The significance of the swan as the symbol of Lohengrin seems to have fascinated the composer as much as it apparently did Wolfram.

The motif of the swan seemed to inspire Wagner's music to a crystal purity--idealistic, shimmering, jewel-like:


Only as he approached the end of his life did Wagner feel impelled to amplify the meaning of the so called Grail Narrative and the source of the swan motif.

I have purposely mixed a new voice with a familiar one here to illustrate the continuity of fine singing that the swan ideal inspires.  The point, however, is that once again Wagner finds himself called upon to provide a source after the original point has been made.  In this case many years later and with a different philosophical view of the world.

Lohengrin is unique among the Wagner operas in that no one illustrates the Positive Romantic train of sacrificing his/her ego (and life) for another or for the good of the world.  At the end of the Opera, Brabant has its rightful ruler restored (too young to rule), Ortud is banished taking her evil with her, and Elsa is dead (perhaps her sacrifice is not for Lohengrin, but for her brother).  Lohengrin, true to his knightly oath, sails away--hardly the catharsis we might ask for--yes, I know--it is more an epic or romance than a classic tragedy.

Mein Vater Parsifal--would, of course, become the subject of Wagner's last opera.  The germ for the idea of this opera was not what we might at first think.  Much has been written about Wagner playing with ideas for an opera with Hindu ties and Schopenhauerian overtones, perhaps incorporating Jesus. Fortunately what we received was the unique composition that not only embodied the Schopenhauer ideals, but made use of a variety of pre made images and symbols that assisted with characterization. Gurnemanz as John the Baptist and Kundry and Mary Magdaline anointing the chosen one whose sacrifice in the wilderness has redeemed the Grail realm.  His sin began with the killing of the swan--an innocent sacrificing an innocent. This is the source of the identification of the knights of the Grail with the swan.   The recovery of the spear reinvigorates the Grail--masculine to feminine--and the sacred realm is redeemed.  The answers to the many questions Lohengrin leaves us with are answered.

Notice the continuity as we hear the same voices extolling the redeeming speer.

Finally, Wagner's music shows us how the ideas complement each other as the final opera resolves the problems with the first.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

In Anticipation of Independence Day

After almost 80 years I am perpetually amazed by the ways my country reshapes itself and how it is viewed by those outside its borders.  Just when I assume that I have a clear understanding of the essence of the American psyche, an event occurs that mystifies me.  For example, in 1962 John F. Kennedy was an embattled President who was feared and disliked by as many people as he had supporters.  His assassination removed almost all of the opposition to his ideas and programs (guided to successful passage through the American legislature by his dark and sinister successor) and turned him into the most popular President of the twentieth century—even a rung or two above Franklin Roosevelt on the popularity ladder.  To further complicate the situation, those who had been the most concerned with Kennedy’s personality and programs became the very ones who sought to place blame for his death through the multiple conspiracy theories, which have essentially mythologized a man of ideals who in actuality accomplished little.  To protect this new image of Kennedy, we have the new trend of how he was betrayed and what a different world it would have been had he lived—he would have gotten America out of Viet-Nam, he would have made peace with the Soviet Union, he would have inspired an American Renaissance in the arts….  No wonder why there is a “dumbing down” in this country; we cannot put our finger on what was, only on what might have been the case.

I do not own a fire arm—I do not want to own one—I never have—in fact, I would probably be more of a danger to myself than to others if I possessed one. I am not the only American who feels this way.  But no one should be surprised by the number of Americans who hold on to their guns as adamantly as they do their bibles.  Bearing arms is ingrained in the American psyche.  The country was born as the result of an armed revolution against an established power.  Something that could never have happened with governmental gun control.   The country just beyond the civilized city limits of New York, Boston, or Philadelphia was a wilderness.  Crops needed to be supplemented with meat that had to be hunted for and then killed with firearms.  Also, since the settlers were stealing the land from those who had lived on it for hundreds of years, but had never done anything with it, so obviously it was not theirs, the settlers had to protect themselves and their new holdings with firearms (I hope the bitter sarcasm is obvious there).  Additionally, the basis for that revolutionary government came from the Enlightenment thinkers who had the idea that the governed had the right to remove a nonresponsive governing body by whatever means necessary.  The Declaration of Independence stakes out approximately 25 charges against George IIII as reason for armed rebellion.  Ironically, 85 years later when the Southern States sought to leave the Union because they saw a government that no longer represented their interests, the rights of the governed did not seem as important as “preserving the Union.”  Lincoln picked and chose the parts of the Declaration of Independence that he wished to follow.  He wisely turned the war between the states into a war to ensure that since all men were created equal (notice the last word is an adjective, not an adverb), they should enjoy the same rights—hence, the Civil War actually became a war to end slavery.  That way, the North could fight without being hypocritical.  Once again, an assassination turned an unpopular President into the “greatest American President” and with the help of the poet Walt Whitman (Captain, Oh My Captain) attained in death a level of esteem that he could probably never have achieved in living and facing the combative Republican members of Congress who like the assembled leaders at Versailles fifty-some years later wanted to punish their enemy (not quite to the extent of Rome salting the soil of Carthage, but nearly so). 

The twists and turns of American history are astounding.  We might consider that the firing on Fort Sumter was not really the cause of the Civil War.  Instead, we might consider the start to be the action of the abolitionist John Brown to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry, to take the weapons, and to arm the Southern slaves for an “armed” rebellion as the start—it certainly put the fear of death in the hearts of Southern slave owners.  Here again, the inheritance of the right to bear arms plays a major role in events.  The concept became even more engrained as “civilization” moved westward across the continent.  The manifest destiny to take control of the continent (never mind that the land belonged to others) spread settlers, ranchers, miners, and trappers across vast areas with very few towns (those that were there were tiny) to serve them.  Law enforcement was nearly nonexistent.  Just as hackers and phishers take advantage of our modern world, so rustlers, poachers, and other assorted villains sought to profit from the labor of others.  As a result, even a “sodbuster” (farmer) needed to own and know how to use a firearm. Colt’s revolver was named the “peacemaker” for a reason. This was a world of “rugged individualism,” and the individual needed all the tools (including a firearm) to ensure his success.  Besides, he would say, the Constitution protects it.  Ironically, the “Constitution” itself has no such provision.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution is the source of this idea and is the result of the objections of the great American Enlightenment thinkers (including Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence) who would not support the adoption of the Constitution without a “Bill of Rights” as a part of it.

As I look at the country today, I am appalled at the intense polarization of the population.  I am momentarily stunned by the depth of the divide that separates the two extremes. While the present situation has produced acrimony and deadlock, the split is nothing new and nothing that should be surprising when one remembers the history of the country, history extending back beyond the founding of the nation.  The American colonies were unique, each had a different reason for existing.  The first colony that survived was purely an economic enterprise—men came to make their fortune (unfortunately the was no gold to pick up off of the Virginia coast). The second colony came about not so much as a search for freedom of religion as freedom from the state religion. Spending my early life as a Congregationalist and being a member of the Pilgrim Fellowship organizations within the Church, I soon learned enough to know that if people could find a way to be ashamed of themselves for any of life’s pleasures, great or simple, the members of this church could do it. Bradford’s Diaries provide great insight into the founding of the New Jerusalem at Plymouth. I am always disturbed by his diction, which consistently mixes religion and business—when a person escaped death, Bradford tells us that it was God’s timely intervention, which was good because inevitably that person proved a “profit” to the community.  Americans hold this group of people in such high esteem that I always feel like the worst of iconoclasts when I suggest to students that the Pilgrims were the sixteenth and seventeenth century equivalent of the Taliban and that the people of England were happy to see them leave. 

The split between the motives for the colonies continues in American society today.  Each colony was founded for a reason. Pennsylvania and Maryland provide sanctuary for Quakers and Catholics. North and South Carolina were economic opportunities. Georgia was the early Australia—a prison colony.  New York and Delaware were spoils of war. New Jersey was the bridge to maintain trade and economic prosperity between the Northern and Southern colonies.  Interestingly enough, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut were also founded as an attempt to flee the state religion, only this time the Church of England was not the power being fled, but the Puritan Church that had taken control of Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The polarization of the land is obvious from its very beginning and is epitomized during the early history of the nation as the split between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Unlike today, however, Adams and Jefferson were able to see past their philosophical differences and maintain a relationship that is inconceivable in today’s harsh, and vindictive climate.  We have simply carried the past into the present: business interests versus workers’ needs, agrarian versus commercial interests, religious and racial superiority issues, individual versus communal issues…all of these have always been present in America.  Why should they surprise me today?

Those of us who can remember often wonder what the world would have been like had certain events not occurred. General Grant, according to the “laws of war” had had every right to arrest General Lee as a war criminal at Appammatox Court House, when the latter surrendered.  Instead, Grant set the tone that was to be Lincoln’s means of “binding up the wounds” of the nation by sending Lee back to his troops and allowing the Confederate soldiers to keep their weapons and horses in order to return home and carry on with their lives.  Lee is reported to have feared that he would be hanged on the spot once the surrender was complete; Grant never had such an intention. He was listening to Lincoln’s “Angels of our better nature.”  Sadly, when Lincoln was shot, all of this changed. The South was shown no mercy, and in return, the South reinforced its prejudices and anger that lasted into the 1970s. Sadly it took another President’s death to begin to change this. 

What if Archduke Ferdinand had not been killed?  What if World War I had not been precipitated—I know that many feel that the War was inevitable, but what if? The U.S. would have maintained its isolation and resisted becoming a world military power. Instead, it would have become an economic leader competing with the world to make life better for everyone.  Without the Kaiser’s assistance Lenin would not have returned to Russia; there would have been no Soviet Union, no cold war, and no lingering suspicions between East and West. Without Versailles, Germany might have escaped the collapse of the 1920s and avoided the polarization of left and right that ended in another War.  For the US it would have meant no Red Scare, no McCarthyism.  On the other hand it would have meant no GI bill, which provided housing loans for Veterans who would otherwise have been unable to purchase property and tuition assistance that allowed for thousands of Veterans to lift themselves intellectually and open economic doors long closed to most of them and their parents.   Obviously we must take both the good with the bad.

For most of us who lived through that time the 1930s and 1940s were nightmares, nightmares that cloud and conceal the great things that happened during that time. The American Art scene enjoyed its greatest boost as refugees in the arts fled Europe ahead of the Nazi purges; scientists and philosophers crowded American Universities.  But for many the 1930s meant small pleasures, dislocation, and inconvenience--Inconvenience that was only made worse by the rationing and sacrifice of the 1940s.  It may seem na├»ve to speak about loss during World War II, when others in other parts of the world certainly suffered far more greatly, but perspective is everything, and to a youth whose father went off to war, whose mother went off to work, and whose supply of day-to-day necessities dwindled to nearly nothing, it seemed like a great sacrifice.

As a result, for most Americans, the 1950s seemed as if the nightmare had ended.  Instead we should have considered it a pleasant dream.  For most of us, there was prosperity and plenty.  But there was the rub—it was that only for those who conformed to the model.  As those of us who entered the decade as youths and aged to young adults, we slowly awoke from the dream, recognized the continued suffering of those who could not or were not allowed to conform.  Suddenly that pioneer trait of the individual reappeared.  A new call to freedom went forth, and many of us answered it.  President Kennedy was trying slowly to redeem the goals of President Lincoln from 100 years before.  Many of us were not willing to wait.  We rallied to the cause of Rights and Freedoms (darn that Jefferson and his Bill of Rights); we rallied to the call of Dr. King.  Our one goal was to remove the blindfold that masked reality as a pleasant dream and to allow everyone to see the remaining want and injustice that still existed in a land of plenty.  Not being good historians, we sought to change 350 years of American history in one short decade.


As I look back at the past and out on the present, I am neither disillusioned nor delighted.  But I live in a place where, despite the Patriot Act, I can still speak my mind, my beliefs that do not impact someone else’s are not forbidden, and no one forces me to attend those Fellowship meetings.  I worry about the attitudes of those around me—especially those who not only go to those Fellowship meetings but want to interpret every event and action through what they are told at those meetings—and about the loss of intellectual  rigor and artistic value that surrounds me.  Perhaps one of the saddest days in my life was when I realized that little stick figures had replaced the words Walk/Don’t Walk on the traffic signals.  I fear that intellectually my country has fallen and may not be able to get up.  However, resilience is in my nation’s character.  I have hope. Wherever you are, enjoy July 4 and share a toast with me.