Tag Archives: history

338. The Benson Murder Case

I just read The Benson Murder Case for the second time. It was an accident. All of the Philo Vance mysteries are titled The (whatever) Murder Case, and they are mostly indistinguishable on the library shelf. I didn’t recognize Benson as one I had already read.

The setting is New York City in the twenties, among the upper class and the demi-monde. Since I’m an ex-Okie farm boy, these people would look down on me as white trash. That places the novel somewhat outside my comfort zone, but it also gives a kind of anthropological interest to the proceedings.

Anyway, there aren’t that many non-bloody and non-cozy mysteries to choose from, and Philo Vance is good fun.

The author is Willard Huntington Wright. The putative author is S. S. Van Dine, who also appears in the novel as the narrator. We are told that Philo Vance, the main character, is a pseudonym for a famous real person who will never be named, so we start out with layers of misdirection. I like that touch. It is as if Conan Doyle had used John Watson, M.D. as a pseudonym. We already know that Holmes was real; just ask any genuine fan.

Vance is an aesthete, immaculate in dress, loquacious, self-centered, quite convinced of his own superiority, and independently wealthy. If an actor were to play him on television today, enunciating all the words that Wright put into his mouth, he would be seen as gay as hell.

I need to explain that. In a sex-ed class I was teaching, during a question and answer period, a student asked me if I had any gay friends. It was a teachable moment. I said, “I don’t know,” then pointed out that a gay person could pass for straight, and a straight person could pass for gay, if either wanted to. We control how we present ourselves. It is a form of communication.

That exchange took place back in the era of Will and Grace, when LGBT portrayals were rare and relatively unsophisticated, but even then the behaviors we associate with gayness were mostly learned from television.

So I repeat, if Vance were portrayed today as he appears in the books, he would not look straight. That’s probably our prejudice. I see no evidence that he was perceived that way in the twenties when the novels were published, except, perhaps, when the villain at the climax calls him “you damned sissy.”

I don’t really care if the author was presenting Vance as gay, or just snooty with a British education, but it does cause a bit of disconnect. Like reading a book in translation, the sub-text can get a bit muddied. This is especially true since this first novel is less about solving a crime than it is about the friendship between Vance, the layabout, and Markham, the hard working District Attorney.

Alvin Benson is shot. Vance tags along with his friend Markham to the scene of the crime, and Van Dine, Vance’s shadow, tags along as well to narrate the story. Vance instantly knows who did the deed, working from his understanding of psychology. Markham is confused by clues. For the next 348 pages, Markham suspects a half dozen people, and Vance follows along showing him the error of his ways, finally leading him to find the murderer.

It sound dumb in précis, but it works. Even the first time I read the story, when I was distracted by Vance’s irritating personality, it worked. The second time through the book, I realized that the real story, hidden behind the unfolding of the mystery, was Vance at work keeping his good friend from making a fool of himself, or worse, enduring the guilt of sending an innocent person to execution.

C. J. Verburg, in a one star Goodreads review, calls Vance a more smug and racist version of Lord Peter Wimsey. She really doesn’t like him, and I can’t say I blame her. She probably speaks for the typical modern reader.

Those who do like him, like him a lot. I’m rather in that camp — I think. Most Goodreads reviews are stellar or stinking, with very few in the middle.

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame

336. The Little Ice Age

Hannes Grobe/AWI – own work – redrawn, supplemented and modified graphic from John S. Schlee (2000) Our changing continent, United States Geological Survey.

The writing of this blog is a pleasure, but it is like a fireplace on a deep winter’s day — it takes a lot of fuel. Sometimes topics fall into short supply. Sometimes I don’t know where my next blog is coming from.

Sometimes I get on the internet and put my conscious mind on cruise control. I let my fingers on the keyboard seek out half remembered images, phrases I have heard, interesting titles from catalogs of books I’ve never read, and half understood events I always meant to research and write about.

Today was that kind of day. I chased down, among other things, two similar phrases I had run across: The Year Without a Summer and The Little Ice Age.

They aren’t the same thing, it turns out. The Little Ice Age was a cool period that purportedly lasted about half a millennium, but its cause, degree, beginning, and ending are frustratingly difficult to pin down. NASA suggests three separate cooling periods in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s but the UN panel !PCC suggests that it is only a series of local events, not a unified world-wide phenomenon.

Locally, the increased cold brought famines, ice blockage of harbors, and shifts in agriculture. Some have suggested that the prevalence of winter scenes in Dutch paintings of the era, and even denser wood leading to better violins by Stradivarius, are byproducts of the Little Ice Age. Yeah, right. Scientists can be frivolously imaginative when pushing their theories, especially if proofs aren’t easily measured.

The Little Ice Age is a really cool name though, no pun intended, and it caught my attention because death by ice age was a common theme in the science fiction stories I read when I was young. Visions of glaciers coming down from the north to obliterate civilization lived in my head for years. They still do, sometimes.

Fifty years ago people — science fiction writers, anyway —  were afraid of global cooling. Now we are all afraid of global warming. That doesn’t set aside what we now know about retreating glaciers, but it does cause a slight pause on the way to full acceptance.

I was late coming to the table where global warming is concerned, for reasons that were entirely sensible twenty years ago, but no longer suffice today. I’m still not convinced that the warming is entirely man made, but it doesn’t matter. That the glaciers are retreating and the polar caps are disappearing is beyond question. That fossil fuel emissions are part of the picture is reason enough for action, even if we don’t know the whole story.

Science never knows the whole story, but people have to take action based on the preponderance of the evidence.

___________________

While I was cruising the web, I also found these estimates of human population.

     1804, Earth’s population, 1 billion.
     1927, Earth’s population, 2 billion.
     1960, Earth’s population, 3 billion.
     1974, Earth’s population, 4 billion.
     1987, Earth’s population, 5 billion.
     1999, Earth’s population, 6 billion.
      2011, Earth’s population, 7 billion.

I think there’s a pattern here, don’t you?

The answer to global warming isn’t an end to the use of fossil fuels — not exactly. It is an end to the need for fossil fuels. It is fewer people.

Oh, and that other thing, The Year Without a Summer, we’ll take a look at it tomorrow.

327. The Lone Hero

bks275-1

                         A note before we start  ——

     Yesterday, someone searched on the sub-title of this blog (be not ashamed . . .) but my software doesn’t tell me who. For your information, unknown and curious person, I explained my relationship to this poem on the last day of 2015, and included a copy of the poem the same day.

     And now to our regularly scheduled business ——

===============

In my youth, before Star Trek and Star Wars and computer generated effects, the typical movie hero was a cowboy, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

Even the word “beholden” seems old fashioned. Ancient. Outmoded — like the western hero himself. And to be fair, he never really existed. If you spend any time at all reading histories of the old west, you’ll find out that things were done by groups, not by lone heroes. When the Dalton gang tried to hold up two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas, it wasn’t a John Wayne figure standing tall in the street that stopped them. It was a dozen or so armed citizens that blew them out of the saddle from windows and doorways. Same story in Northfield, Minnesota when the James gang bit the dust.

I called them armed citizens. That sounds pretty good. Put them up on horses with Winchesters and send them as a posse after the bad guys. It still works — unless you are the one they are after. Call them vigilantes, and some people will start to feel uncomfortable, but not everyone. Call them a gang and people will start thinking about locking their doors.

Put them in white hoods. What do you think of them now?

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

The lone, self-sufficient individual or small family did exist. There were soddies on the Kansas prairie miles from the next settler. Or log cabins in the deep woods of Ohio and Indiana — back when Ohio and Indiana had deep woods. And there were the mountain men. You can’t get more independent than that — except that they moved across the prairie in companies, and only dispersed once they were in the mountains.

One thing is certain. The idea of the loner was always there.

I wrote my first book, a young adult novel called Spirit Deer, with the idea of the loner front and center. The young man Tim — he didn’t need a last name — got lost in the Sierras while deer hunting and found his way out without help despite innumerable trials and tribulations. You can still sell that kind of book (see Two Hands and a Knife), but they are becoming rare. Today’s YA novels seem to be about how to get along in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It better fits the world today’s youth live in. The — ask a friend, seek companionship, don’t rock the boat, politically correct, do no harm, love yourself, make no judgments, everything is morally right as long as you don’t hurt someone’s feelings — world.

Granted, there is much good in these “civilized” changes, but whatever happened to standing up on your hind feet and saying, “I don’t agree. That’s not for me.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion different from the crowd.

No wonder Trump won.

He’s as fake as Rooster Cogburn, but he represents something Americans have come to miss. The cowboy hero, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

There is one thing to remember though. When the smoke cleared and the sound of six guns faded at the end of that movie, half the town was dead in the street. That may work when you can leave the theatre and drive home to your secure suburban house. It doesn’t work so well when you have to pick up a shovel and go bury your dead.

The self-certain loner and the soft spoken conformer. As Kirk said to Spock, “The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

325. Exploring Challenger Deep

300px-challenger   300px-bathyscaphe_trieste

HMS Challenger 1874 and bathyschaphe Trieste 1960

Challenger Deep is located in the western Pacific about 2000 kilometers east of the Philippines. It is the deepest part of the Mariana’s Trench, which makes it the deepest part of any ocean.

March 23, 1875, the British research ship H.M.S. Challenger rolled out a line with a weight on the end to measure the oceans depth, something it had been doing throughout its four year journey. It was quite a line. When the weight hit bottom, Challenger’s crew had paid out five miles of hemp — a depth of 4475 fathoms in the measurements of the day.

Although cruises like the Beagle and the Endeavour had set the stage for such exploration, the Challenger expedition was rigged out specifically to study the world’s oceans beneath their surface. It essentially initiated of the science of oceanography. Our space shuttle Challenger was named after H.M.S. Challenger, as was the ship H.M.S. Challenger II which returned to the spot in 1951 and remeasured the depth using an echo-sounder. This time the figure was seven miles, not five.

Reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep remained impossible until two world wars, submarines, frogmen, sonar, and the invention of the Aqualung wedded modern technology to oceanographic exploration. A new invention by Auguste Piccard, the bathyscaphe, finally made very deep dives possible.

In its essential function, a bathyscaphe is more like a dirigible than a submarine. The crew is suspended beneath the vessel in a steel sphere designed to withstand great pressure. The skin of this pressure sphere is so thick, five inches in the case of the Trieste, that it would sink immediately. To prevent this, it is suspended beneath a large, thin skinned, self-propelled float filled with gasoline. This provides buoyancy and, since gasoline is a liquid, is not affected by pressure. Air tanks allow the bathyscaphe to float on the surface as it is being prepared for use. Once the air tanks are emptied, the negatively buoyant bathyscaphe sinks to the bottom — seven miles down in the case of Challenger Deep. The pressures there are so great that it is impossible to refill the air tanks, so the bathyscaphe also carries several tons of steel shot in open bottom containers, held in place by powerful electromagnets. When it is time to return to the surface, the electromagnets are shut off, the steel shot is released, and the now positively buoyant craft returns to the surface. In case of a power failure, the shot would automatically fall away.

The bathyscaphe Trieste was built in Italy to a modification of a Belgian design by Swiss inventor Piccard for the French navy, who subsequently sold it to the American Navy, who rebuilt it with a new and stronger pressure sphere made in Germany. Globalization, anyone?

On the twenty-third of January, 1960, the Trieste was ready to plumb Challenger Deep. The crew consisted of Jacques Piccard, son of the designer, and Navy Lt. Don Walsh. They boarded the vessel, moved down to the seven foot diameter pressure sphere and sealed the hatch. The air tanks were allowed to fill with water and the descent began. It took nearly five hours to sink to the bottom of the Deep. Three quarters of the way down, one of the plexiglas windows cracked, but not enough to cause disaster.

As they cruised above the deep ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh reported a bottom of smooth ooze and saw bottom fish swimming, proving that vertebrate life could survive such high pressure and eternal darkness. They spent only twenty minutes at the bottom, in part because of the cracked viewport, and hours more returning to the surface.

No one would return to those depths for another half century.

Trivia for the faithful: Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: TNG seems to have been named after the Jacques Piccard, or after his father Auguste Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard. Different sources credit different family members with the name origin. Also, in TNG episode “11001001” a small, slow starship named Trieste is mentioned.

310. Boys at Work: Howard Pease

By at Wk atwOn August 2 through 4, 2016, I wrote posts on what I called apprenticeship literature. Here are two more in that series.

More than any other writer, apprenticeship literature is the domain of Howard Pease.

Pease’s fame was world wide and his stories spanned the globe as well, but where I live he is a local author. Not many people remember him, since his best known books were written in the 20s and 30s. Those who read him, tend to love his work. A glance at Goodreads will find few but uniformly high ratings.

Pease was born in Stockton, California. He wanted to be a writer from grade six. He spent his professional life as an English teacher near San Francisco. Between school years, he shipped out on freighters, and based most of his novels on what he learned there.

He is best known for his Tod Moran books, in which Tod begins at the bottom of the hierarchy of shipboard life and works his way up to first mate over thirteen novels. His friend and mentor through most of those novels is Captain Jarvis.

The Tod Moran books are not politically correct by today’s standards. The anti-bullying squad would burn them if they ever got close enough to read them. Although Jarvis is a mentor, his shipmates are the dregs of the harbors. Tod has to fight – literally – to maintain his place on board. Hazing is a constant theme in all Pease’s books, but the message is not “hazing is bad.” The message is that you have to fight every day to survive in a man’s world.

Try writing that in a children’s book today.

Tod comes on board his first ship having devoured his favorite book, The Lookout: a romance of the sea. What he learns in that book does not serve him well. He discusses with Jarvis how different his world is from his expectations.

Tod smiled ruefully. “But everything is so different from what I was taught to expect.”

“It always is, Joe Macaroni. Before a boy grows up, he has to unlearn all those pretty myths about life and death which have been taught him by tender-minded ladies of both sexes. I feel sorry for the poor kids. They have to go through hell. … Most of them don’t, though. Instead, they commit intellectual suicide; they remain simply children.” Jarvis fixed his keen eye on Tod and his face softened. “Somehow, I feel you won’t do that. You’ll kick off those swaddling clothes. … But I pity you in the process – I pity you.” The Tattooed Man, p. 90

This sounds like the address Pease made to an ALA conference in 1939, where he called children’s literature “wholly and solely a woman’s world . . . (under) tender-minded feminine control.” That address reminds me of Heinlein’s ongoing argument with his editor at Scribner’s, which eventually caused him to stop writing juveniles.

One final note for anyone who is already a fan of Howard Pease: the Summer 2000 issue of the San Joaquin Historian was entirely devoted to him. You will find it on line at www.sanjoaquinhistory.org/documents/HistorianNS14-2.pdf

306. White Men Only

Mostly, A Writing Life is a look at science fiction and writing in general. However, I am an American, and my country did something seventy-five years ago that needs to be remembered. See also Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that citizenship was available to “any alien, being a free white person”. That set the tone for the future. When the law was amended after the Civil War, it’s new iteration was taken to mean that Chinese were not eligible for citizenship.

Economic reality brought them to America anyway, where their children became citizens by birth, even though their parents could not be naturalized. The Chinese importance to the transcontinental railroad is well known. When the golden spike was driven, Chinese by the thousand were thrown out of work, and in the years that followed, downturns in the American economy were blamed on cheap Chinese labor. By 1882, Chinese were forbidden entry into the United States, a condition that continued until the 1940s.

In 1880, only 148 Japanese were living in the United States. Between 1885 and 1894, the need for cheap labor in Hawaii coupled with economic difficulties in Japan led 25,000 Japanese to emigrate to Hawaii. Many of those later moved on to the mainland.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, particularly during the Alaskan gold rush, there was a need for cheap labor all over the American west. Chinese were prohibited from entering the US, but Japanese were not. The result was predictable; between 1901 and 1908, 127,000 Japanese entered the United States. Many entered the fishing industry. Many were skilled in a kind of small scale, intensive agriculture that was new to the United States. All came from a culture that emphasized the entrepreneurial spirit.

Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese immigrants were denied citizenship, but their children became citizens at birth.

Most of these Japanese settled in California, where they formed a tiny minority. By 1941, only a small minority of that minority were both native born and of voting age, leaving the Japanese politically voiceless.

Throughout the half century before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese, especially in California, were subject to virulent racism. Repeatedly, the California legislature made it illegal for Japanese to lease or own land, but these were poorly conceived laws that were universally evaded. Japanese children were segregated out of public education.

It is a familiar pattern. Most ethnic groups endured it when they first came to America – then used the same tactics against whoever came after them. Like hazing at West Point, it is a long-standing American tradition.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Unfounded fears of the Japanese led to Executive Order 9066, and in 1942 the American military moved 120,000 Americans from their homes and incarcerated them thousands of miles away in “relocation centers”. I call them Americans because they were either actual citizens or long time residents who intended to live out their lives in their new country, but were prevented from receiving citizenship because of their race.

Much is made of the harshness of the centers, but that is not the point. Tens of thousands of GIs lived in barracks identical to those that made up the relocation centers. There was one difference, however, that does matter. The GI barracks were not surrounded by barbed wire fences, with guard towers manned by soldiers with guns.

And those GIs who made it back from the war, returned to their homes. The homes, farms and businesses of the Japanese were largely taken by the neighbors who had sent them away.

* * * * * * * *

I said in the beginning that I would not shove conclusions down your throat. I will, however, leave you with this quotation from Personal Justice Denied, p. 28:

(Japanese relocation) is the bitter history of an original mistake, a failure of America’s faith in its citizens’ devotion to their country’s cause and their right to liberty, when there was no evidence or proof of wrongdoing.

For me, 2017 is beginning to look a lot like 1942. Decide for yourself.