This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War

Drew Faust. This Republic of Suffering; Death and the American Civil War by Drew Faust. Vintage, 2009 paper.

Drew Faust describes the ways in which death, on the scale that it was experienced in the Civil War, altered attitudes on an array of issues related to the end of life. These war casualties seemed unnatural to nineteenth-century Americans. The war killed young men in huge numbers, then the healthiest demographic and the least expected to die so young.

War deaths violated Victorian and Christian views on the Good Death. One expected to die at home, surrounded by loving family gathered around the death bed. There were last words; the dying person was fully cognizant of his impending death. All attending hoped that he or she would have an easy death. Generally some religious assurance was at hand.

Instead the bodies of the Civil War dead were scattered where they fell, often in pieces, amongst dead horses and mules. Unless quickly buried, they began to decompose. The dying were far from home and family and unattended in the final moments of life. It was a stranger’s death, in a strange land.

A good portion of the deaths were not battlefield casualties. Rather, soldiers died in field hospitals from their wounds, from gangrene, diarrhea, dysentery, and typhoid fever. Civil War prisoners were led off to an uncertain future in camps like Andersonville, Georgia. Nine percent of the Civil War dead died in prisoner-of-war camps.

Faust explains how doctors and nurses, commanding officers, and fellow soldiers attempted to restore some of the assurances of the Good Death. Letters of condolence were often written by someone who had witnessed the dying moments. If that weren’t possible, the family could be assured that their loved one had died for his country. “I have never witnessed such an exhibition of fortitude and Christian resignation as [your son, brother, husband] showed” would be a likely part of any letter. Some keepsake, perhaps a watch, diary, Bible, lock of hair, might be included in the condolence letter.

What circumstances of warfare in the 1860s shaped the ”republic of suffering?” While Civil War weaponry was more deadly than in previous wars, you were often still close enough to see the person that you were killing. Moreover most combatants were not professional soldiers. Slaying someone, even in warfare, was, for many, a transgression of the Sixth Commandment. As in most armies, a minority did most of the fighting, the rest avoided active combat.

Some individuals, however, acquired a taste for killing. Sharp shooters were particularly likely to do so. They generally killed at close range but hidden from view. When captured they were often shot. Black troops fighting in Northern armies were usually given no quarter.

Civil War soldiers did not have any official identification — no dog tags. They might carry on them a letter of identity with instructions about how to notify their next-of-kin. Neither army, at first, took identification of the dead seriously. Bodies were collected together, having been dragged across rough ground, and buried in mass graves. Thus a large portion of the enormous numbers of dead were never named, but simply declared missing in action. Grieving families would often travel to the battlefields to undertake a generally hopeless search for their loved one.


Had he died a ‘natural’ death, a person would have been buried amongst the cluster of his family graves in a churchyard or one of the municipal “garden” cemeteries being laid out in the north. To handle the numbers of dead and still provide some semblance of respect, national cemeteries were established alongside the great battlefields. At Gettysburg,for example. Their ordered rows of identical markers attest to the costs of the War, but also the anonymity of death.

The individual states, later and with great solemnity, erected monuments that now give character to these mass burial sites. Often the states would declare a day of remembrance that eventually coalesced around a national holiday, Memorial Day.

Drew Faust has taken an important piece of American history, previously overlooked or misunderstood, and given it focus and meaning. It won a National Book Award nomination. It is one of my favorite books

Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections

Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections by Mark Dunn. St. Martins Press, 2005, paper.


Mark Dunn has given up on defining an interjection. Some grammarians contend that interjections lie outside the rules of grammar; i.e. that they occupy a linguistic fringe. Other grammarians admit that they are often goofy, rarely literal, but nevertheless part of grammar. Zounds! lists over 750 of them. And Mark Dunn admits that this is only a sampling.


Their uses are so varied that creating categories is difficult. Shunning the use of profanity – swear words – but at the same time wanting to make a succinct comment about the matter at hand is a common intent. Darnnation! and gol-durn it!, two of many variations, are stand-ins for the `D’ word. The list of substitutes for swear words is endless. Tarnation! as in, “What in tarnation are you up to?” For Pete’s sake! Pete is thought to reference the apostle, Peter. Gosh! Or even more explicit, gosh-all-mighty! instead of the ‘G’ word. Gee! and gee whiz! and Jiminy Cricket! instead of ‘J-C.’ There are many interjections that mock piety. Holy guacamole! Holy cow! Holy moly!


Many interjections have emerged out of popular entertainment. Jiminy Cricket! was created and sneaked into a Walt Disney movie by its writers. Yadda-yadda! warns the listener that the speaker has chosen to make a quick cut to the finish of a story or argument, or hopes that you will. It is from Jerry Steinfeld’s show. As is Giddouttahere! an interjection to use when you discover someone playing around with your gullibility.


Popular interjections come and go. Many of Dunn’s list sound like grandma talking. Fiddle-dee-dee! and for crying out loud! Grandma would never have allowed the ‘bad words’ for which these are interjections or stand-ins to be uttered in her presence. If she were really strict about these matters, she might not even have allowed these substitutes to be used within her earshot. The current O.M.G., Oh My God! would never have been approved by Grandma. Except when recited in the liturgy.


Interjections are spoken but rarely seen in print. So Dunn’s spellings are useful. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary contains many of Dunn’s interjections and its definitions are better. But first you have to figure out the spelling from a remembered oral tradition. Not so easy.


Interjections commonly function as one- or two-word commentaries. They are often impertinent, dismissive, sarcastic, saturated with attitude. Well, boo hoo! is an insincere, mocking lamentation. Duh! is a commentary on the penetrating intelligence of some observation or realization. Whatever! a contemptuous dismissal indicating a lack of interest. Phooey! is an older dismissive.


Excuuuuuse me! is a response to a rude question or thrust. When drawn out, the word “excuse” takes on a different coloration from the polite usage. Similarly puh-leeze! means something very different from “please.” Interjections can of course be affirmative. Awesome! Cool! Groovy! Right On!


Some interjections are centuries old, some decades, some just the last few years. Some seem so trite as to deserve their forthcoming oblivion. No problem! one that I would like to see fade, despite its Latin provenance. Enjoy! is overused by waiters; let it die. Have a good one! is powerfully off-putting.


But for every interjection that I hope will fade, there are a dozen that I wish would stick around. The secularized Amen! is handy to signify agreement. Boy, oh boy! is fun but threatened because it is gender specific. For crying out loud! Heck! I’ll say! La-di-da! Lord a mercy! Okey-dokey! Voilà! What the Same Hill! Our language would be the poorer without its many interjections.


I gave a review of Zounds! at one of the retirement communities in town. After the above introduction, I asked them to come up with interjections that they remember – even use. They came up with a list of over 120 that weren’t mentioned above, nor by Mark Dunn. Awesome!  A partial list: Baa humbug! Bless your little pee-picken heart! Dad-burn it! For crying out loud! Groovy! Holy cow! Is the Pope, Catholic? My my! Oh my stars and garters! Phooey! Say that again! Take a fly’n leap! You bet your sweet baby!


Warning! Don’t try these out on a crowd that is less than say 60. You’ll get a lot of blank faces, you betcha!

Broke, USA; From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.

Broke, USA; From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, Harper Collins, 2011, paper.


This is an impressive example of investigative journalism. In past times we would have called it muckraking. Gary Rivlin has investigated the myriad of companies whose business it is to loan money to the less well-off. Pay-day loans, pawnshops, check cashing, rent-to-own, the cash-in-advance tax return business, the second mortgage market, and used auto-loan financing are categories of enterprises in the poverty business. And the companies described in Broke, USA are all over our town, though more commonly in east Gainesville.


It is also true, and he admits this, that these businesses provide a service to their customers. Not everyone has an uncle or aunt who will spot them for $500 until the next paycheck. Moreover, these companies are often in lieu of branch banking, which has generally vacated the poorer areas of our cities. It is estimated that seventeen million Americans no longer have bank accounts. So they need to obtain financial services including that small loan to tide them over until the next paycheck,


Rivlin describes a number of ironies.  For example, the tax refund anticipation loan business profited from the earned income tax credit inaugurated by the Nixon Administration as part of its welfare reform. Rather than making direct payments, welfare recipients are given a tax credit. A family with two children and less than a stipulated annual income receives a tax credit. H & R Block would happily loan that in advance of their tax return, but at a substantial interest rate. The tax credit for health insurance that is part of the recent overhaul of healthcare will also profit the tax-anticipation business.


Broke, USA. points out that many of the poverty industry’s “victims” are middle-class Americans, but living from paycheck to paycheck and occasionally using these lenders to solve short-run liquidity problems. They could resort to short-term borrowing from a bank via their Visa Card. And be charged much higher effective interest rates than does Advance America, a leading company in the payday loan business. Gasp, a bounced check of $100.00, subject to a $35.00 bank overdraft charge, is equivalent to a short term loan carrying a 910% interest, if made good in two weeks.


Rivlin was at first swayed by the arguments for these new financial institutions. But the more he thought about the situation, the more confident he became about the exploitive nature of subprime lending. He argues persuasively that there has been an “unmooring” of interest rates from any calculation of risks. Most of the working poor manage their debt and are not substantially greater risks than the rest of us, he claims.


One of the heroes of Rivlin’s book, Martin Eakes, started a company in North Carolina that makes affordable loans to people purchasing homes, and his company can make a go of it at 1 to 2% points above the going interest rate. He looks for borrowers who have proven to be hard workers with secure jobs and not buying a home beyond their means. An insider and vehement critic of the poverty industry, the MacArthur Foundation gave him one of their genius awards.


Eakes and Rivlin aren’t happy with the big banks. NationsBank, First Union, Citigroup, Bank of America, and others became involved in subprime lending, securitizing its financial products with disastrous results. That involvement has provided another good reason to enact substantial financial regulations. One useful beginning is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which President Obama has created. Also many the states’ Attorneys General are taking an interest. And the big banks may eventually bring some greater integrity to the subprime enterprise. At least they can be more easily shamed.


On the other hand, the problem may grow if real incomes of middle class Americans continue to shrink as they have in recent years. We would like to hope that Americans will, nevertheless, begin to put away some savings for a rainy day and be less dependent upon short-term, expensive credit. But that depends on their earning a decent wage and being given a decent interest rate.



Where Men Hide

Where Men Hide by James Twitchell and Ken Ross, photographs. Columbia University Press, 2008 paper.


James Twitchell, UF, is reflecting on Ken Ross’s photographs of men’s hiding places. Twitchell looks at traditional men’s lairs, their disappearance, the possible reasons why, and then proposes some newer ones. He argues, however, that these newer hiding places have less power to shape male cultural life than did the older.


Perhaps the most striking ‘male cave’ of old was the fraternal order, the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, Order of Moose, Knights of Columbus, Woodmen of America, to name the most popular. They gave opportunities to get away from both the job and family life. Twitchell agrees with Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) that their passing represents a significant loss of male community.


The causes of their demise are complex. American men are working longer hours. And in their free time, they have been induced to spend more “quality time with their families.” They have found a more convenient ‘retreat,’ their La-Z-Boy recliner located in front of the television set.


In recent decades barbershops have been transformed into “hair styling salons” and are often bisexual. They were once a male hiding place, providing opportunities for loafing and for convivial conversations across varying backgrounds. The only women who ventured into those barbershops were mothers bringing their sons for a first haircut.


On the other hand, Twitchell notes that home workshops continue their popularity as hiding places. The inhabitants of these warrens may be leisurely restoring an old car or making furniture. More commonly workshops are equipped to undertake home repairs. The do-it-yourself craze does not, however, account for the elaborate work-benches and collections of specialized tools there lovingly displayed.


The home office as hiding place? That would seem a contradiction. Men cannot be escaping from either home or office by retreating to their home/office. Yet hideouts they are despite their smart phones and internet connections.


Getting away from both home and office on wheels has been a form of hiding, Twitchell reminds us. The open road has always beckoned the man on his motorcycle. Sports utility vehicles? Yes and no. When first introduced in the 1970s, SUVs were presented in ads as opportunities for males to strike out by themselves. A SUV could take on any back road and even go off-road in quest of adventure and escape. But nowadays the SUVs and their drivers have been domesticated. Moms find them convenient for hauling kids to soccer.


One of the newer hiding places, Twitchell proposes, is the phenomenon of men’s religious organizations, for example the Promise Keepers and their stadium rallies. Menfolk have never regularly attended church in the same numbers as women. In order to induce them to do so, mega-churches have explored the male-only prayer meetings. This may be an instance of men hiding out, but this men-only worship and the place in which it occurs is hardly hidden.


These men’s groups are intended to ‘keep the faith,’ while perpetuating traditional notions of maleness. The Promise Keepers encourage men to share life’s experiences with other men, and in that way they resemble older occasions when men hid. Yes, they provide opportunities for male bonding, but not at the expense of their wives and children. Family values are part of their credo. For good or ill, the movement, and therefore this particular hiding place, has lost steam in the new century.


Is the disappearance of men’s hiding places the result of a prolonged assault on the part of women? If so, Twitchell believes, this is only indirectly so. Rather the male cave is disappearing because the male, who once found hiding out essential for maintaining his peace of mind, is perhaps finding it less necessary – and certainly less possible



Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age

Fast Food; Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age by John Jakle & Keith Sculle, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, paper.


The authors explore how corporate America has created various formulas for the businesses that dominate the American roadside. They call the formula ‘place – product – packaging.’ Fast-food restaurants with multiple locations, the subject of this book, are the result of an integration of programmatic architecture, interior decorating, the standardized products and services for sale, and their regimented operating procedures.


‘Place – product – packaging’ is a manifestation of the American consumer’s dependence on branded products. But it needs to be noted that the expansion of the interstate system after the Federal Highway Act of 1956 both nourished our automobile age and created a new opportunity for American restaurant entrepreneurs.


The present-day roadside quick-eating restaurants, John Jakle and Keith Schlle suggest, had precedents, which many of us are old enough to remember. Most originated in America’s ‘downtowns.’ Soda fountains, luncheonettes, lunchrooms, cafeterias, and diners have mostly disappeared along with those downtowns.  When young I can remember tearooms usually in private homes along highways. High school in the early 1950s would not have been the same without carhops and drive-ins to feed hungry teen-agers after a movie at the drive-in theater.


The authors describe how these types of eateries metamorphosed into fast-food chains. White Castle diners were one of the earliest. Their smallish, rather greasy hamburgers were eventually replaced by a better product dished up by MacDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Checker’s, Krystal Restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Sonic Drive-In, Whataburger, and others. Mexican, I give up! Pizza, I give up!


Two of them, Sonic Drive-In and Whataburger closed within a year of their opening in Gainesville and sat for a long time forlorn and empty. That brings up a problem which the authors don’t mention: These themed buildings and their chain-specific interior décor do not recycle well.


It takes three chapters of Jakle and Sculle’s book to get through the progress of the hamburger. There follow chapters on sandwich, ice cream, breakfast, chicken, seafood, pizza, and taco shops, with lots said about singularities, but also their similarities.


The authors trace ice cream parlors back to portable stands that would motor over to factory gates at lunchtime, schools letting out, and football fans returning from a sunny stadium. Those portable stands led to Diary Queens. The old Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream and Coffee Shop, found at one time along many a ‘blue highway,’ had “28 flavors” of ice cream. The Howard Johnson’s have been replaced by Häagen Das, Ben & Jerry’s, Baskin Robins, and TCBY. And competing with all of them in Gainesville, thank you, is our own Sweet Dreams.


One similarity amongst these different eateries is the use of franchising. Though initially mostly ownership chains, the rapid expansion of roadside fast-food was facilitated by local investors. There was a range of services and obligations demanded of both sides to a franchise agreement. The chain would obtain both a source of venture capital and a local owner-manager. The franchisee would secure a known branded product and a good start in the fast-food business. He was often required to obtain his supplies from the chain’s commissary.


Not all roadside restaurants were about quick service. Some have gone upscale to create the “destination restaurant.” Like their fast-food neighbors, they are ‘casual’ or ‘family oriented’ but they offer a more varied and expensive menu. The largest destination restaurants in terms of units as of the late 1990s were Applebee’s T.G.I. Friday’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Hooters.


Several of these were once in our Oaks Mall. Is the Oaks Mall to be considered a road-side place or a transplanted downtown? In terms of their suite of restaurants, I would say the former.


Fast Food was published in 2002, and some quick food places that cater to Americans-on-the-go are not included. Sports bars are not mentioned, which are common along airport concourses, a more recent version of the American roadside. There is overlap between roadsides and concourses. Vending machines are appearing in airport concourses, an interesting throwback to the automats of bygone years.


The authors contend that the roadside is a place. They have provided the reader with an interesting tour of its precincts.


Helluva Town; The Story of New York City during World War II

Helluva Town; The Story of New York City during World War II by Richard Goldstein. Free Press, 2013, paper.

Richard Goldstein’s title is taken from the hit song “New York, New York, It’s a Helluva of a Town.” It was in a Broadway musical called On the Town, a salute to the US Navy, which opened in 1944. The Army also had its musical review This is the Army with songs by Irving Berlin and the Air Force, Winged Victory by Moss Hart. They were good public relations for the armed forces. Though, since they were used as recruiting vehicles, they rarely touched on the downside of the war.

New York was the major port from which troops embarked for Europe. Hence there were tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines stationed in the city for brief periods or for the duration, if carrying on support tasks for the military. They needed to be entertained and their entertainment was part of New York’s war effort.

The port also shipped out a massive amount of war materiel. Goldstein cites the statistic that in World War II, it took a ton of ammunition, food, clothing, medical equipment, and petroleum products to keep one soldier in frontline combat for a month.

The Midwestern industrial heartland and California manufactured most of the planes, tanks, and ships used in World War II. But employment in New York’s garment industry, electronics, printing and publishing, as well as entertainment, did lift it out of the Depression. Disadvantaged by these patterns of military procurement, New York had catching up to do after the war.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard was one exception to New York’s light industry. It built the battleships Missouri, Iowa, and North Carolina and many smaller war craft. But it was mainly involved in repair and maintenance. At one time it employed 75,000 workers.

New York was the country’s ceremonial city; Goldstein describes one of its grand military parades. In June 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was home on leave and led a motorcade through New York’s streets that was cheered by an estimated four million people. It was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse, both in uniform, in Times Square, which became the cover of Life magazine’s special issue commemorating V-J Day.

This home front had its thrills but also its miseries, often long hours of work and crowded living conditions.  And anger. Goldstein has a chapter on the Harlem riots that took place in 1943. They were part of wave of riots and looting in many US cities, sparked by continuing racial segregation and differential treatment in the armed forces. There are several versions of the initial incident which sparked the riots, but all agree that it was fueled by pent up anger and frustration. African-American leaders and New York mayor Fiorella La Guardia worked to quell the violence, which occurred over several days and nights.

Even the casts for the musical reviews like On the Town, advertising the contribution of our fighting men and women to the war, were largely segregated. Although to the credit of the entertainment industry, it began calling on known black musicians.

Goldstein has a chapter on an incident involving a B-25 Mitchel bomber that flew into the Empire State Building in July 1945. The pilot, intending to land at Newark airport, mistook the East River for the Hudson and could not pull up fast enough to keep from slamming into the Empire State Building between its 78th and 79th floors. The crash ignited the plane’s aviation fuel and the ensuing fire spread to the next six flours. The building remained standing and nearly all of the occupations exited safely.

Goldstein ends with a short piece about the entry into the New York harbor of the transport ship, Joseph V. Connally, two years later. It was carrying 6,200 coffins containing dead soldiers. The reader is reminded that New York, a vibrant city during the war and an active home front, was still far removed from the fighting, and its sorrow.

Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill

Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill; How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era by Stephen Ortiz. New York University Press, 2012, pape.

Stephen Ortiz, a University of Florida graduate, has written an interesting book on the impact of World War I veterans on American political life in the 1920s and 1930s. WW I veterans – doughboys – had mostly entered the army as conscripts. After the war, they argued that they should receive compensation for their time in the armed forces, particularly since they had not benefitted from the good wages paid to American workers during the war.

Mindful of the veterans’ vote, Congress agreed, and in 1924 awarded ex-doughboys compensation for their wartime service in the form of interest-paying certificates payable in 1945. A few years later they were allowed to borrow money against those certificates (in 1931 up to 50%) and a good portion did so.

Matters changed in the early 1930s with the Great Depression. Led by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, these ex-doughboys began asking for immediate payment of their bonuses. But President Herbert Hoover, believing that the best means of getting America out of the depression was to balance the budget by reducing expenditure, argued that immediate payment of the bonus would add significantly to government spending.

A group of veterans in Oregon decided to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The ‘Bonus March,’ or more popular ‘Bonus Army’, was not officially sanctioned by either of the two largest veterans’ organizations, the VFW or the American Legion. But soon veterans from many states were encamped on the Anacostia Flats and demonstrating daily at the Capitol. In July of 1932, Hoover entrusted Douglas MacArthur with responsibility for getting rid of their tent city of 43,000 veterans and their families. And MacArthur chose to do so with units of the army, their bayonets fixed and supported by six tanks.

The fall out on Hoover’s re-election prospects in ‘32, Oritz contends, was disastrous. His Democratic opponent, Franklin Roosevelt, had, however, avoided raising the bonus issue during the campaign. Roosevelt was also opposed to an early payment of the bonus. No American, he argued, just because he once wore a uniform, should be placed in a special class of beneficiaries of government programs. He threatened to veto any such legislation.

In his first two years of office, Roosevelt’s initial attempt to deal with the depressed American economy and unemployment was, like Hoover’s, to balance the budget. As part of that budget-balancing, he also opposed paying the bonuses.

One interesting perspective of Beyond the Bonus March is Ortiz’s views of the “New Deal Dissent.”  Senator Huey Long of Louisiana and Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Detroit, both took up the veterans’ bonus cause and supported immediate payment. Consequently many who supported their advocacy of “sharing the wealth” were veterans. Long and Coughlin are usually portrayed as ‘extremists’ for their persistent attacks on American capitalism. Roosevelt spoke of them as a “menace” to the country and historians have mostly agreed.

A sitting president and legislators, worried about their re-election, did not want to face the wrath of the doughboys, however. So in the summer of 1936, accommodations were made. The bonus certificates could be exchanged for small-denominational government bonds, “baby bonds” that could be cashed immediately or with interest added if held for a period of time. The act was supported by both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Ortiz contends that Roosevelt’s cave-in on the bonus portends the ‘Second New Deal’ that followed his re-election.

Having come to terms with the bonus issue for World War I veterans, Ortiz suggests that neither Roosevelt nor Congress wanted a similar political storm following World War II. In 1944, the GI Bill of Rights passed through Congress with almost no opposition. 7.8 million veterans took advantage of the free schooling offered and 2.4 million got help with buying a home. The doughboys, mostly still around in 1945, must have been envious.


Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty and Arthur Goldhammer, trans. Harvard University Press, 2014.

Where to begin talking about this amazing book? Thomas Piketty argues that the degrees of inequality of both wealth and income may in the coming decades reach the levels prevailing in France and Britain in the Belle Époque from 1870 to 1914 but not since then. To understand why that may occur, one must visit the intervening century with all of its traumas – and inequalities.

Piketty’s title makes reference to Karl Marx and his Das Kapital (1867). Like his illustrious predecessor, Piketty might be accused of stirring up “class hatred.” But that is not Piketty’s purpose. Rather it is to examine measures to reduce the growing inequality in the name of saving capitalism in its democratic environment.

France and Britain, figure prominently in his analysis of capitalism. They provide the longest running statistical series, and Piketty has fashioned them into numerous, informative graphs and statistical tables.

Capital comes in different forms, and they have changed over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1870 European capital was largely agricultural and financial – bonds and stocks. Frenchmen – particular Parisians – and Brits felt comfortable in placing their capital abroad – in North American railroads and Russian sovereign debt, for example. These owners of capital lived on fixed incomes from that capital and cashed in some of it occasionally, to pay for a desired life-style. Much of it, however, was passed on within families. Consumption was not yet the bane of family fortunes.

By way of contrast in the mid-1900s most capital assets were in the form of urban housing, industrial plant and machinery, businesses and business inventories, and natural resources.

Family wealth is only partially from inheritances; it also benefits from the huge inequalities of wage income, ‘executive pay,’ for example. The defenders of this disparity in wages argue that it mirrors a meritocracy. Piketty contends, however, that there is no statistical evidence of a contribution to national productivity sufficient to justify today’s wage inequality.

To illustrate his argument that wealth inequality in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1950s, he divides the owners of wealth into four brackets, top 1.0%, 10.0%, 40.0%, and the bottom 50.0%.  Particularly outrageous are the gains in the percentage of total wealth that the top .01% have acquired. By way of contrast, the lower 50.0% of the distribution own a tiny 5.0% of the wealth.

Those in the 40.0%, bracket he names “the new proprietary middle class.” They have gained through ownership of urban housing, but also income from wages, though nothing like the top 0.01%, 1.0%, or 10.0%. Piketty’s analysis would suggest, however, that the democratic environment of capitalist economies has resulted in the rising economic and political clout of this proprietary middle class.

Inequality of income from both capital and labor has varied over the twentieth century. It was considerably less during the ‘shock’ to capitalism resulting from two world wars and the intervening depression, 1914 to 1945. These wars were financed by disportionately heavy taxes on the rich.

One interesting question raised. How should ‘human capital’ – the stock of knowledge, talents, skills, experience, and training – be reckoned, and how should it be compensated? Should it be considered a capital gain or should it be considered a wage? Is ‘human capital’ over-compensated by the present capitalist structure? The bottom 90% are assured by the wealthy that human capital is a worthwhile investment opportunity because it brings upward social mobility, for the individual, even though it does not redistribute either income or wealth.

Piketty argues that recent reductions in the progressive nature of income and estate taxes have made it more likely that the best opportunity for anyone with or without human capital is to have inherited wealthy parents.

He proposes that we should temper the growing inequality of wealth and income by taxation. He recommends a progressive but low tax on all forms of capital, perhaps 1.0 to 2.0 %. It would be much like the present property tax, which in Alachua County, Florida is about 1.5% of the assessed value of the property – land and buildings.  Remember this is a tax on an asset, not a tax on the income from that asset, and it is regressive in terms of wealth concentration.

Florida once had a tax on various forms of intangible assets – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and capitalized assets such as copyrights, goodwill, intellectual property, etc. After a generous deduction, the rates were from 0.2% to 1.0%. It was gradually abolished by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature as unfair to heirs. Good luck with your tax on capital, Thomas Piketty!

Piketty does not think that a tax on wealth should replace either estate or income taxes, but those taxes should be reformulated along with the introduction of a tax on capital. And all should add up to a “return to the State” adequate for financing education, health services, defense, replacement income, and various transfer payments.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century was briefly a best-seller, a credit to both Piketty and to the reading public.

Mourning Lincoln

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes. Yale University Press, 2016 paper.

The President and Mrs. Lincoln had decided to attend a play at Ford’s Theatre. It was Good Friday, 14 April 1865. “Our American Cousin,” a light comedy, was suitable entertainment for a President who had seen the country through a long civil war. Richmond had fallen on Monday of the previous week, and on 9 April, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House. On the night of 11 April, Lincoln had delivered a victory speech elaborating on his plans for the South’s ‘redemption’ – thereby closing the wounds of civil war. The public had expected a triumphal speech.

John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor and son of a famous actor, was in the crowd and listened to Lincoln’s speech that night but had a different reading of Lincoln’s intentions. He was part of a conspiracy to disrupt the Union victory by assassinating Lincoln and his Cabinet.

The telegraph spread the terrible news of Booth’s deed around the Union. Martha Hodes notes, however, that the North was not united in its sorrow. There were many Copperheads who had opposed Lincoln’s militant resistance to Southern secession. Throughout the War they had pressed Lincoln to open negotiations with the Confederacy. They were outraged that those negotiations had been blocked by Lincoln’s decision to end slavery in the secessionist states. Their mourning of Lincoln’s death was measured.

News of the assassination also spread through the Confederacy, and again the responses were mixed. I thought, however, that Hodes’s using a Southerner from Jacksonville, Florida, Rodney Dorman, as her representative of continuing Southern intransigence didn’t work. His “glee” in hearing of Lincoln’s murder doesn’t, I suspect, represent the responses of most Southerners in April 1865. The war had been lost, and they had lost husbands, fathers, and sons. With trepidation they were ready for the war to end.

Both sides had believed that God favored their cause. How then could the South explain its defeat? The North had won the war; but with an enormous toll of dead and wounded.  And now their leader, also killed. God’s wrath?

Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, died the next day. Millions of Americans would attend church on Easter Sunday morning. Ministers had less than twenty-four hours to devise a sermon appropriate for an Easter Sunday but also one that comforted those mourning Lincoln. How could there not be some parallels between a murdered president and sacrificial lamb?

The nineteenth century thought much about the good and proper death. It would necessarily involve family in various rituals of mourning. But Lincoln’s family was mostly absent from his state funeral; Mary Lincoln chose to grieve in private.

Lincoln laid in state in the Capitol for two days, drawing thousands to view his body. Arrangements were made for a funeral train that would end up in Springfield, Illinois – a 1700 mile journey that involved a half-dozen railway companies. It would pass through many cities and towns, stopping for a few moments. Thousands of people had gathered along the route. There were over-night stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Harrisburg, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Everywhere there were military escorts, including African-American troops, to honor the dead President. And also no doubt for crowd control.

The wearing of black and draping buildings in black were part of the rituals surrounding public mourning. Church and courthouse bells rang as Lincoln’s body passed through each town, and again at the end of the burial ceremony in Springfield.  Flags were flown at half-mast throughout the Union.

The public suspected that the Confederate leadership and particularly Jefferson Davis were involved in the assassination. The conspirators were soon caught, however, and responsibility for the murder of the President focused on them. Booth was shot in the course of his arrest. Eight other conspirators were arrested, tried, and hanged. So the wrath and cries for vengeance were focused on the conspirators. Davis and others in the Confederate leadership were thankful; they did not want Booth and the murder of Lincoln associated with their lost cause.

There have been three assassinations of sitting Presidents since Lincoln: James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy. President Kennedy was shot in Dallas on 22 November 1963. How vividly I remember that day. What I was doing. Who told me. How we gathered together to hear the latest news bulletin. We knew of the assassination within minutes of when the shots were fired.

Northerners knew about Lincoln’s assassination as soon as their local paper could get out a special edition. News of his murder had traveled by telegraph. Kennedy’s by radio. No doubt in 1865, like 1963, the news also spread by word-of-mouth. In both; bewilderment, anger, fear, but then a great sorrow.

Mourning Lincoln was nominated for a National Book Award, and rightly so.


Wilde in America; Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

Wilde in America; Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity by David Friedman. W.W. Norton, 2014.

David Friedman covers one year in Oscar Wilde’s career, his tour of North America in 1882. The title makes it sound as though Wilde in America gave birth to our thriving celebrity culture. What we learn is how Wilde and his press agent cultivated opportunities available at the time. Like those present-day celebrities who crowd our grocery checkout counters, Wilde and the company that arranged his tour were hoping to create fame.  And in Wilde’s case, this was years before the literary works which made him famous.  As Friedman puts it, fame would launch Wilde’s career, not cap it.

His sponsors had sent him to America to give a series of lectures and test the waters for Patience, a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera. It had been a success in London and they hoped for an American repeat.  But its producers wondered whether the theme of the comic opera, competition between two proponents of the aesthetic movement, would resonate in the U.S. The lyricist, W.S. Gilbert, had been inspired by watching Wilde fashion a notoriety out of ‘performing,’ in elaborate outfits, at gatherings of London’s literati.

Wilde was mindful of the importance of generating public attention with press interviews. The press interview was already a well-established phenomenon. (Here and elsewhere Friedman gives Wilde too much credit as an innovator.) In Wilde’s year touring America, he granted some 100 interviews. They were scheduled for late morning and held in his hotel room (always the most expensive in town), on a ‘set’ of Wilde’s contrivance.

He was the master of the clever, witty remark. Some of his quips were originals, a product of his quick-wittedness. Many were borrowed, stories that he had heard, then transformed as necessary, and used in his interviews and lectures.

He made good money. Halfway through his tour, Wilde had already earned $129,000 in present-day dollars. While his east-coast appearances had been pre-arranged and the auditoriums booked, the rest of the tour took form after his arrival. He accepted an invitation to visit California for three weeks and was paid $117,000 for that segment of the tour. Like other speakers on tour, he traveled – always by train – to many a cultural backwater, and to an audience that had never heard of the aesthetic movement. Remember that this was 1882. And although he did not always fill the hall in such places as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City, he did get their attention.

He was moderately well received in Galveston, though there were several rowdy boys who tried to disrupt his lecture. He told his audience that he had the authority to arrest them, having been made an honorary colonel of the Texas Rangers. Laughter followed; it had worked. He didn’t take offense; the disruptions usually won him sympathy in the local press. (Back in England when he retold this story, he elevated his honorary rank to a general of the Texas Rangers.)

April 1, 1882 he spoke to the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Its members, not reverential and in a trickster mood, contrived to get Wilde and themselves drunk when he joined them for lunch. So they plied him with tumblers of whiskey. They retired sloshed. Wilde, a big man, could hold his liquor and walked away still sober.

Throughout David Friedman’s book, one is struck by the bad manners of those Americans that Wilde encountered on his tour. But then he wasn’t always careful of their American pride. You can imagine the uproar when he said that he was disappointed with Niagara Falls, “bulk but not beauty.” In Chicago he had the nerve to make derogatory remarks about its famed Water Tower. In Salt Lake City he claimed that the Mormon Tabernacle was “the most purely dreadful building” he had ever seen.

Many of the photographs included in Wilde in America were taken by a New York celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony. Normally celebrities charged photographers a sitting fee, which Wilde had waved. In return he intended to remain in control of his image. For that reason he brought to Sarony’s studio various outfits and props. The two of them spent a whole day together contriving poses.  Wilde had been good at creating personas for live audiences; here was a new medium. Sarony later claimed that it was he who had invented Oscar Wilde.

Wilde, son of two Irish nationalists, had a hankering for “lost causes,” including the Confederacy, still around in the form of Jim Crow. In Slidell, Louisiana he witnessed the lynching of an African-American preacher accused of assaulting a white woman. He was given a tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans by the Confederate General Pierre Beauregard and later entertained by Ex-President Jefferson Davis at home in Biloxi, Mississippi.

David Friedman’s account of Wilde’s tour is also a journey through 1880s’ America, with commentary by an observant tourist.