Wednesday, September 28, 2022

the last book I ever read (Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, excerpt three)

from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

We didn’t dare wait to add up the fare. We stuffed a pile of silver into the cabby’s hand and dropped a couple of Kleenexes to cover the mess on the floor, and ran in through the lobby and on to the empty elevator. Luckily for us, it was a quiet time of day. Betsy was sick again in the elevator and I held her head, and then I was sick and she held mine.

Usually after a good puke you feel better right away. We hugged each other and then said good-bye and went off to opposite ends of the hall to lie down in our own rooms. There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.



Tuesday, September 27, 2022

the last book I ever read (Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, excerpt two)

from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

“You ought to read French and German,” Jay Cee said mercilessly, “and probably several other languages as well, Spanish and Italian – better still, Russian. Hundreds of girls flood into New York every June thinking they’ll be editors. You need to offer something more than the run-of-the-mill person. You better learn some languages.”

I hadn’t the heart to tell Jay Cee there wasn’t one scrap of space on my senior year schedule to learn languages in. I was taking one of those honors programs that teach you to think independently, and except for a course in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and a seminar in advanced poetry composition, I would spend my whole time writing on some obscure theme in the works of James Joyce. I hadn’t picked out my theme yet, because I hadn’t got round to reading Finnegans Wake, but my professor was very excited about my thesis and had promised to give me some leads on images about twins.



Monday, September 26, 2022

the last book I ever read (Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, excerpt one)

from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was ro read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.



Sunday, September 25, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt nineteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

I remember when I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses as a student, being startled to find Artane right there as a sinister shadow, already imprinted on the imaginary life of the city. Leopold Bloom goes to the funeral of Paddy Dignam and the men discuss the fate of his young son: ‘Martin is trying to get the youngster into Artane.’ The Jesuit priest, Father Conmee, walks out to the industrial school to make the arrangements. The kid walks through the streets, unaware of what is being planned for him. Later on, in the night-town dream world, ‘Artane orphans, joining hands, caper round’ Bloom. The place flits in and out of consciousness, never quite coming into focus but always there as a portent, a sequel, the unseen fate that awaits the innocent boy. Reading the book, this made complete sense to me. It wasn’t literary modernism. It was social realism.



Saturday, September 24, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt eighteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

In a weird coincidence, the same seventeenth floor of the Grand Cypress was occupied at the same time by the great icons of a new form of global Irishness, the rock band U2. They were about to launch in Florida what would come to be regarded as the most spectacular stadium rock show ever staged, the Zoo TV tour. Even weirder is that one of the daring innovations of the show was a video confession booth where fans could look into the camera and tell it their most intimate secrets. Some of these would then be streamed during the concert. While Ben Dunne was raving to escorts about the Catholic Church and Confession, his compatriots a few doors away were about to launch a parody of the same sacrament.

When the hotel security staff heard that an Irishman was going mad on the seventeenth floor, they assumed that this must be typical rock star behaviour. They contacted U2’ s security staff, and they all made their way up there. In fact, the band members were down in the lobby, preparing to go for rehearsals. When another sex worker that Dunne had called arrived, she was surprised to see three police cars and an ambulance outside the hotel, but even more freaked out when Bono walked out past her. ‘I’ve always been a fan’, she recalled, ‘but it hardly seemed the time to introduce myself.’ There was another odd echo of the past – when Bono told U2’ s manager that a guy named Dunne had been arrested at the hotel with cocaine, they both assumed that he must one of the Dunnes who had introduced heroin to Dublin.



Friday, September 23, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt seventeen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

I got my first job in the summer of 1972, working as a boy assistant for Dunnes Stores in George’s Street in the centre of the city. I remember the year because it has a soundtrack. My immediate boss John – really just a nineteen-year-old trainee manager in a cheap pinstripe suit – lived three stops further up the 81 bus route from Crumlin into town. I had no choice but to sit beside him for the journey. He was a nice guy but he liked to sing on the bus. At the top of his voice. And he had one song, the one that had been playing over and over for months on Irish radio, Shel Silverstein’s ‘Sylvia’s Mother’. John would start low, as we went down Clogher Road. But by the time we got to Leonard’s Corner, he’d be sobbing in a Texas-Crumlin drawl: ‘Pulleeese Mississ Ay Vurry, I’ve just godda talk to err / Ah’ll owny keep errr a why-ill.’ He would do it every morning and every morning I would sit rigid with mortification. It was not just that people would think I was part of this shameless act. It was that this histrionic mishmash of Ireland and America was hideously uncool.

It is not quite as decorous as Proust’s madeleine, but John’s renditions of ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ came into my head twenty years later in February 1992 when the news broke that Ben Dunne, scion of the retail dynasty that owned and developed the Dunnes Stores chain of clothes and food shops that were a cornerstone of Irish modernity, had been arrested in Florida, charged with trafficking in cocaine. He had gone crazy in the Grand Cypress hotel in Orlando. There was something apt about this other mishmash of Irish history and expensive American hotels. Just as Annie Murphy’s last encounter with Eamonn Casey in the Grand Hyatt the previous summer had opened an aperture into one kind of Irish reality, Ben Dunne’s freak-out in the Grand Cypress lifted the lid on another.



Thursday, September 22, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt sixteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

In 1989, Lenihan’s liver gave out. He needed a transplant, and it was decided that he should go to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The Irish health service was not good enough for members of its own government. The board of the state-owned Voluntary Health Insurance company quietly decided that it would pay the full cost. Haughey knew this. He nonetheless asked a Fianna Fáil fundraiser, Paul Kavanagh, discreetly to request a number of sympathetic businessmen to stump up between them somewhere between £150,000 and £200,000 for Lenihan’s new American liver. Eight individuals or companies answered the call–the largest single contribution being £25,000 from Goodman.

The people who raised and contributed what may have been as much as £265,000 for Lenihan’s liver acted in good faith, believing that they were saving the life of a popular national figure. But the whole thing was essentially a scam perpetrated by Haughey. He knew that the full cost of Lenihan’s direct treatment would be borne–as indeed it was–by the VHI. Other expenses amounted to around £70,000. So he helped himself to most of the money ostensibly raised for the operation: probably about £200,000. He spent it on handmade shirts from Charvet in Paris, dinners with Terry Keane at Le Coq Hardi and the general upkeep of his extravagance. The cheques were signed, blank, by his acolyte Bertie Ahern.

Not that Haughey was not thinking of the Lenihan family. On the morning of her departure for the Mayo Clinic, he sent Lenihan’s wife Ann a gift of £200 – 0.1 per cent of the money he had stolen from the fund he established for her husband’s treatment. There was something magnificent in this depravity. Haughey had wept openly when told of Lenihan’s plight. But he quickly saw the opportunity. He would later claim that he knew nothing about the handling of his own finances, but this was hands-on, highly personal fraud. When one donor asked who to make a £20,000 cheque for Lenihan out to, Haughey replied simply: ‘To myself.’ Later, when the whole affair unravelled, he insisted that his efforts ‘for the good and salvation of my friend Brian Lenihan’ was ‘the most compassionate thing I had ever done in my life’.



Wednesday, September 21, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt fifteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

That same weekend, the word was that the attorney general, Patrick Connolly, was struggling to come up with a wording for the proposed constitutional amendment banning abortion. He was a nice man who had built up a very lucrative practice at the Bar, representing insurance companies in personal injury cases. He liked opera and reading James Joyce. He was not seen as particularly political, but he knew Charles Haughey because he had been one of his junior counsel at the arms trial in 1970. It was nonetheless a bit of a surprise when he was appointed as attorney general by Haughey on his return to power in March 1982. One of the trials of the job was that he was now responsible for wording a brief amendment that would define the beginnings of life and confer full citizenship on a foetus. Even for a man whose colleagues would give him a first edition of Finnegans Wake to mark his fifty years at the Bar, this was a conundrum.



Tuesday, September 20, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt fourteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

A month before the pope’s visit, on 7 August 1979, the IRA had what it would always regard as its best day. At Mullaghmore, on the Sligo coast, it murdered a seventy-nine-year-old man, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, a fifteen-year-old schoolboy and an eighty-three-year-old woman. The ground for these executions (the word the IRA itself used) was that the old man, Louis Mountbatten, was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Later that day, at Warrenpoint, the IRA set off two massive 800-pound bombs, the first killing six British soldiers, the second killing a dozen more. Most of the dead were from the hated Parachute Regiment, which had inflicted the equally murderous violence of Bloody Sunday in Derry. The graffiti declared the triumph of revenge: ‘Thirteen dead but not forgotten / We got 18 and Mountbatten.’ They did not mention the schoolboys or the old woman.

John Paul’s Mass outside Drogheda was in reality a substitute. It had become clear that he could not, as he had hoped, visit Armagh, the ancient capital of the Irish Church, because it was in Northern Ireland and the occasion might be incendiary. Drogheda was as near as he could get, and Catholics from the North came in huge numbers to be part of the celebration of their religious identity. This, too, created an illusion of unity–all Irish Catholics together. Contemporary reports brushed over the trouble on the night before the papal Mass. Gardaí had to threaten force to remove ‘Northerners’ from the site of the planned event. The pilgrims from over the Border managed to get caravans onto the papal site and park in the aisles leading to the altar. Extra Gardaí had to be called in to deal with the situation, which ‘became ugly at times when the Northerners refused to move. But after some persuasion, including threatened use of batons, the Gardaí succeeded in clearing the site with the help of some tow trucks’.

In his homily the next day, John Paul made a dramatic intervention in the Troubles, effectively using all of his authority and charisma to try to get the IRA to stop its campaign of violence. He denounced its efforts to ‘push the young generations into the pit of fratricide’ and ‘the absurdity of war as a means to resolve differences’. He preached ‘that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings. Violence is a crime against humanity, for it destroys the very fabric of society.’

Using all his dramatic skills, John Paul turned from magisterial preacher to abject supplicant: ‘Now I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence. I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace… Further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love and the values you claim to cherish. In the name of God I beg you: return to Christ, who died so that men might live in forgiveness and peace.’



Monday, September 19, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt thirteen)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

By 1979 there was no evidence that public opinion had become much more liberal. In a 1977 poll for Magill magazine, 43 per cent supported access to contraceptives for marrieds only, and fully a third continued to oppose any legalization at all. But, crucially, in March 1978, the Catholic hierarchy had signalled its tolerance for a conservative compromise. It acknowledged that ‘the present legal situation is unsatisfactory’ and that ‘minimum amending legislation was required’. In discussions with Haughey, the bishops made it clear that they would not go to war provided the legislation expressed support for the ‘natural’ methods of contraception sanctioned by the church, that there be no public family planning service, that intrauterine devices would not be available and that both the advertising of contraceptives and the availability of sterilization would be strictly controlled.

Haughey complied with all of these conditions. The bishops also wanted a specific restriction of contraceptives to married couples, but this presented the same legal difficulties as Costello’s proposals in 1974. The formula Haughey used instead was ‘bona fide’ couples, pursuing ‘bona fide family planning purposes’. They would be allowed to purchase condoms, but only if a doctor, satisfied as to their bona fides, issued a prescription. Ireland became the first and only country in the world to make a condom a medicine. As the Irish Medical Association dryly noted, ‘the prescription or authorization of condoms is not a medical function’. Nonetheless, the legislation passed in July 1979 and came into effect in November 1980.

This might be seen as a victory, albeit a very small one, for liberalism. It seemed to me to be precisely the opposite. It was a great victory for the status quo, not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it. Nothing in it was going to change the ambition of me or my friends or of most young people in Ireland, which was to have as much sex as possible without getting either pregnant or married. But that was not really the point. The point was that this was, as Haughey called it, ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’, adding: ‘I have not regarded it as necessary that we should conform to the position obtaining in any other country.’

This begged the question: what was the Irish problem? It was not sex or pregnancy, which were known to be issues of some relevance to foreigners, too. It was the maintenance of an acceptable gap between what we knew and what we acknowledged. Everybody knew that fornication would continue to be recreational as well as procreational. The problem was how to legislate for this activity without being seen to give any form of official recognition to its inevitability.



Sunday, September 18, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt twelve)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

The severed head of Saint Oliver Plunkett is displayed in a glass box surmounted by a bejewelled golden turret in St Peter’s church in Drogheda. The Irish Catholic archbishop was hanged, drawn and quartered on trumped-up charges of high treason, in London in 1681. His head was thrown on a fire, but rescued by sympathizers. There are marks of burning on the left cheek and the skin, preserved by creosote, is like dark leather. But it has an eerie, undead quality. The veins still bulge beneath the skin. Little pockmarks fleck the forehead and the outlines of the eyebrows are still clear. The eyes are closed, but the mouth is half open, the lips curled into what ‘might be construed as a grimace, a snarl or even a twisted smile’. It hovers between life and death, between anguish and ecstasy, between the horror of unspeakable torment and the joy of martyrdom, between past and present.

Shortly after noon on 29 September 1979, the parish priest of St Peter’s, Monsignor James Lennon, lifted Oliver Plunkett’s head from the shrine and passed it to two men, members of the all-male right-wing Catholic fraternity, the Knights of Columbanus, who carried it down the aisle. Twenty-five more Knights formed a guard of honour for the head as it passed out of the church. The priest carefully placed the head on a velvet-draped and flower-strewn army jeep manned by Corporal James Shields and Private Terence Reilly of the 27th battalion of the Irish army. They drove slowly through the town, accompanied by the members of Drogheda Corporation dressed in their official robes, brass bands, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides.

As the procession came towards its end point at the huge field outside the town where Pope John Paul II was preparing to say Mass for about 200,000 people, there was another guard of honour, this time formed by a thousand nurses in their dazzling white hospital uniforms, members of the Catholic Nurses’ Guild. 2 John Paul knelt in silent prayer before Oliver Plunkett’s head. It was then placed on the altar while he said Mass, so that its sightless eyes could witness this ultimate moment of vindication, a church once persecuted now utterly victorious, a reviled criminal elevated to sanctity, a traitor triumphant. Plunkett’s presence proclaimed the power of martyrdom and the resurrection of the dead.



Saturday, September 17, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt eleven)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

In July 1972, my father was working on an early morning bus that went out on the quiet roads into the foothills of the Dublin Mountains. It was trundling along outside Enniskerry when he saw a very unusual sight for those times in Ireland: a group of men running along the side of the road in tracksuits. They were big men. They were also Black men. One of them was the person my father most adored in the whole world. The bus pulled up ahead of the group and my father jumped off to say hello to Muhammad Ali. He was in Dublin for a fight in Croke Park against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, promoted by the same Butty Sugrue who had once claimed to have Admiral Nelson’s head.

My father asked him if he would like a lift. Ali joked that he had left his wallet in his hotel and couldn’t pay the fare. My father said he would make an exception for Ali and his entourage. They got on the bus and Ali said good morning to the few sleepy passengers, then got off and continued his training run. When he was telling us about this magical encounter, my father kept using the word ‘beautiful’ about Ali–the first time I had ever heard a man use it about another man.



Friday, September 16, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt ten)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

RTÉ was running footage of the massacre and interviews with eyewitnesses, all of whom said that the people who were killed were running away and that the British army had not been fired on. The very fact that thirty-one civilians had been shot while no soldiers had come to any harm underlined the plausibility of these accounts. But the army claimed that they were responding to attacks from snipers and nail bombers, that over 200 shots had been fired at them, and that at least four of those killed were wanted terrorists. (They were not.) It was this attempt to create an alternative reality that gave the event its apocalyptic quality. It was not just that innocent people had been so openly murdered by the British state. It was that an official fiction was being woven in real time, right in front of our eyes. The dead would not even be truly remembered – they would be buried in lies.

In our world, on the other hand, the Derry dead were immediately subsumed into history. The events of 30 January 1972 were coupled with those of 21 November 1920, when British soldiers opened fire indiscriminately on players and spectators in Croke Park. The same number of people–fourteen–had been killed. So the same name was given to the day: Bloody Sunday. Even though the victims of this second Bloody Sunday were emphatically not members of the IRA or part of any armed insurrection, this act of naming brought them into the capacious company of the martyred dead and defined the Derry massacre as another chapter in the long narrative of Ireland’s fight for freedom.



Thursday, September 15, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt nine)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

In 1971, a woman in Ireland could not, in effect, sit on a jury–that privilege belonged to registered property owners who were almost exclusively male. She could not, if she was a civil servant or worked in a bank, keep her job when she got married. She could not buy contraceptives (unless the Pill was misprescribed as a ‘cycle regulator’). She could not buy a pint of Guinness in a pub–some pubs refused to allow women to enter at all (my grandfather’s local on Leonard’s Corner was colloquially known as The Man’s House); some allowed a woman in if, and only if, she was accompanied by a man; and many refused to serve women pints of beer. (Even in 1978, in a popular pub in central Dublin, a barman accidentally sold me a pint of Guinness for my girlfriend. He could not take it back, since I had paid for it, but insisted on pouring it into two half-pint glasses instead.)

A woman could not, as of right, collect the state allowance paid to help her raise her children–the legislation specified that it be paid to the father, who might, or not might not, mandate her to collect it. She could not get a barring order in court against a violent husband. She could not, if she was married, live securely in her own home–even if she paid for the house, her husband could sell it at any time without her consent. She could not refuse to have sex with her husband–the concept of marital rape was regarded as a contradiction in terms. She could not choose her own legal domicile – if her husband moved to Australia but she stayed in Ireland, she was legally domiciled in Australia. She could not get the same rate for a job as a man. She could not get a divorce under any circumstances.



Wednesday, September 14, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt eight)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

While we in Dublin were calling people Balubas, the revolt of Catholics and their allies among liberal Protestants and left-wingers was arguably the first white rebellion to be directly and explicitly inspired by a Black movement. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, formed in 1967, was another example of the Americanization of Ireland. But the defining influence was not the America of capital and commodities and Westerns. It was the America of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. ‘We plagiarised an entire movement’, acknowledged the manager of the Derry museum, Adrian Kerr. ‘We even went as far as stealing the song.’ The song was the civil rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’, adopted almost immediately by NICRA.

One of the key turning points in the emergence of the struggle in Northern Ireland as an international story was consciously modelled on a similar moment in US history. In January 1969, a march for civil rights, from Belfast to Derry, was organized by the student-led People’s Democracy group. When it came to Burntollet Bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by a loyalist mob that included off-duty members of the notoriously sectarian auxiliary police force, the B-Specials. Some of the RUC members on duty tried to protect the marchers, but most stood by while they were assaulted with iron bars, bottles, and cudgels studded with nails. Burntollet Bridge was a knowing simulacrum of Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The main organizer of the march, Michael Farrell, wrote that ‘The march was modelled on the Selma − Montgomery march in Alabama in 1966, which had exposed the racist thuggery of America’s deep South and forced the US government into major reforms.’



Tuesday, September 13, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt seven)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

The night we got back from England, a sixty-seven-year-old man, Francis McCloskey, was found lying on the roadside in Dungiven. He had been struck by a police baton. He died next day. Two days after that, Samuel Devenney died in hospital in Derry city. On 19 April, eight policemen from the Royal Ulster Constabulary who were pursuing fleeing rioters smashed their way into a small house on William Street in the Catholic Bogside area. Four of them surrounded Devenney, a forty-two-year-old taxi driver, and kicked him and battered him with their batons. His daughter Anne, who was eighteen, threw herself across his body but the policemen grabbed her by her dress and threw her off so they could keep beating him. When she again lay across him, they grabbed her by the hair and pushed her against the fireplace. He suffered severe internal injuries and died of a heart attack on 17 July. Half an hour before the police burst in, he had been watching an opera on television. The inquest later returned a verdict of death by natural causes.

McCloskey and Devenney were the first two fatalities of what was not yet called the Troubles – a euphemism that still applied to the revolutionary period between 1916 and 1924. Before Devenney’s funeral, his widow Phyllis, mother of their nine children, pleaded for an end to violence: ‘Sammy was a peaceful man. All his life he hated violence and would have been appalled at the thought of any violence now committed in his name.’ Even at this point, her wish did not seem like a fantasy.



Monday, September 12, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt six)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

Irish people in this era – and perhaps in the long colonial period before it – were masters of ingenious hypocrisy. John McGahern was asked by a friend and neighbour in rural Co. Leitrim why he didn’t go to Mass. He said he’d like to but he’d feel a hypocrite because he did not believe. ‘But sure none of us believe.’ ‘Why do you go then?’ ‘We go for the old performance. To see the girls, to see the whole show… We go to see all the other hypocrites!’

Hypocrisy was the tribute realism paid to piety. It was not a threat to church and state but a homage to their stability and durability. But it had one rule: the duplicity, the slipperiness, the dodging, were supposed to be for the laity. There had to be a fixed point to weave around, a node of assurance in all this endless equivocation. If the people were to keep making the considerable mental effort to deal with great changes in their lives without challenging the moral monopoly of the church, the church for its part must be its predictable, straightforward self. To know how they themselves should dance, the people had to know where the church stood. This was the seed of destruction that was already present in 1968: the church was not the counterweight to our hypocrisy. It was the greatest hypocrite of all.



Sunday, September 11, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt five)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

The non-mercenary part of the attraction of being, as an altar boy, a kind of mini-priest, was not exactly religious, but it was to do with ritual – the sonorous secret language of call-and-response Latin formulae; the candles and incense; the luscious whiff of the altar wine; the dazzling white of the sacred host, transformed from sticky unleavened bread into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. There were also crumbs from the table of power. I got to officiate at weddings, to be vicariously a part of other people’s happiness. Even amid the adult grief of funerals, holding the holy water for the priest to sprinkle over the coffin made me feel serious and important – rare feelings for a child in those days.

This sense of importance was not confined within the church. Its writ ran in school, too. One morning, our teacher was absent and we were messing and talking loudly in the classroom. The head Brother burst in, dark-browed and furious and roared at us. As we sat terrified, he asked: ‘Do any of any of ye even know what saint’s day it is today?’ While the others cowered, I put up my hand: ‘Saints Zachary and Elizabeth, father and mother of John the Baptist.’ ‘Stand up’, he said, and as he came towards me I thought for a moment that I had said something wrong and he was going to hit me. He put out his hand and shook mine, as though I were not a boy but a friend. ‘Now this is a true Christian. The rest of ye are pig-ignorant heathens.’



Saturday, September 10, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt four)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

At some time in my childhood, Asher Benson, one of the repositories of the memories of Dublin’s Jewish community, went into the Bleeding Horse pub on Camden Street for a quiet drink. He was confronted by a man called Sniffer Cohen, ‘a barrow-pushing petty dealer in manufacturer’s offcuts, so named for his quivering proboscis’. Four pints later, Sniffer became maudlin. ‘If only Leopold Bloom was here’, he snuffled. ‘There was a man who knew how to down a pint!’ Bloom is the central character of James Joyce’s Ulysses and not exactly real. But Cohen told Benson that, in 1942, he had been summoned urgently to a fourth-floor attic room of a tenement in Bishop Street and enjoined to bring a jug of porter.

There, lying on a rusted rickety iron bed was his childhood friend, Leopold Bloom, who, ‘since the publication of Ulysses in 1922, had sensibly chosen to keep a low profile’. His thin shoulders were draped in a faded prayer shawl with ‘Property of Greenville Hall synagogue’ written on it. He had a grease-stained skull cap embroidered with the word ‘Jerusalem’ on his wizened head and a tattered Hebrew prayer book upside down on his lap. ‘I’m dying’, he announced, ‘and this is the last jug I’ll ever down.’

‘Promise me’, he entreated Cohen, ‘to bury me in the Jewish cemetery in Dolphin’s Barn.’ Bloom then took the jug of porter, blew off the froth, drank the contents in one uninterrupted swallow and expired, cursing James Joyce and saying he would ‘settle with Jimmy in Hell’.



Friday, September 9, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt three)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

Just after midnight on 1 January 1962, the symbolic moment of Ireland’s new Irish TV age, viewers could see on their screens His Eminence Cardinal John D’Alton, the eighty-year-old Catholic Primate of All-Ireland. He was quite clear about what should not be on television. TÉ should reflect high ideals, ‘not presenting us with a caricature of Irish life such as we have had from some of our writers in recent years’. Viewers would have no trouble decoding this for themselves. They would have thought of Sive and of Tom Murphy’s On the Outside.

But freshest in their minds was the scandal of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls. O’Brien’s debut novel, telling the story of two young women through adolescence and teenage years, was banned in Ireland in June 1960, almost immediately upon its publication in London. It was one of thirty-five books banned on the same day by the Censorship of Publications Board, ranging from literary novels by O’Brien, Alberto Moravia, James T. Farrell and Emigdio Alvarez Enriquez to Diana Dors in 3D and French cartoons, from the Home Medical Encyclopaedia to What to Tell Your Children About Sex. They were all just filth.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt two)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

Sean O’Casey, whose new play The Drums of Father Ned had also been dropped because he refused to make alterations, had a similar response: ‘The dropping of the plays will be a subject of ridicule all over the world.’ (O’Casey subsequently banned the production of all of his plays in Ireland during his lifetime.) Over the weekend, Samuel Beckett withdrew three mime plays and a reading of his radio play All That Fall from the festival in protest at the Archbishop’s interventions against O’Casey and Joyce. Within a few days, the entire festival would be ‘postponed’–in effect abandoned.

There was, though, one deliciously farcical little afterpiece. It emerged that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had been advised by his (Catholic) chaplain that there was nothing objectionable about staging Ulysses, since it was ‘a story known to everybody’. This was taken to suggest that there might, after all, be some little tinge of liberalism within the church. But ‘it didn’t become clear until much later that he was confusing Homer’s Ulysses with that of James Joyce.



Wednesday, September 7, 2022

the last book I ever read (We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland, excerpt one)

from We Don't Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland by Fintan O'Toole:

This created a surreal disjunction. ‘Ireland’, as a notion, was almost suffocatingly coherent and fixed: Catholic, nationalist, rural. This was the Platonic form of the place. But Ireland as a lived experience was incoherent and unfixed. The first Ireland was bounded, protected, shielded from the unsavoury influence of the outside world. The second was unbounded, shifting, physically on the move to that outside world. In the space between these two Irelands, there was a haunted emptiness, a sense of something so unreal that it might disappear completely.



Monday, September 5, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt fifteen)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Into that breach leapt Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a Tea Party darling and the Texas co-chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Patrick reasoned that since the Texas Senate had passed a bill to make it harder to remove historical monuments such as the Cenotaph, then Bush was obviously calling every state senator a racist. Patrick seized the opportunity to slam both Bush and the redevelopment plan, even threatening to transfer management of the Alamo to another state agency. The manufactured outrage was widely considered Patrick’s opening gambit to keep Bush from challenging him in a future Republican Party primary election.

Meanwhile, Fox & Friends cohost Brian Kilmeade came out with what might be the best-selling Alamo book of all time, Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers. To say he hewed to the traditional view of things understates the matter; he referred to slaves as servants. Allen West, the former Tea Party congressman from Florida, moved to Texas and won his insurgent campaign for the state Republican Party chairmanship. His main issue? The Alamo.

And if it wasn’t clear that the Heroic Anglo Narrative had again become a conservative keystone,* in February 2020 Donald Trump promised a “great American comeback” in his State of the Union address. “This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley. This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo,” he said, continuing through the applause, “the beautiful, beautiful Alamo.”



Sunday, September 4, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt fourteen)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

A good place to start this story is with the terribly nice little man who began showing up at the Alamo in the 2000s. He was slight and balding and usually wore a black T-shirt. He chatted with gardeners and maintenance men. Before long the security guards and gift-shop ladies knew him by name. Everyone liked him. Everyone called him Phil.

Yes, this was Phil Collins. The singer, as we’ve mentioned, had been fascinated with the Alamo since boyhood. He had begun collecting Alamo artifacts years before and was on his way to assembling the largest collection of Alamo-sourced items in the world. By 2014 he was musing about finding a museum to hold his 206-piece collection, which included everything from Jim Bowie’s Bowie knife to a shot pouch said to have been Davy Crockett’s. Collins wasn’t getting any younger and wanted to ensure the collection was in safe hands before he passed.



Saturday, September 3, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt thirteen)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

In the debate between Alamo revisionists and traditionalists, only the latter camp tends to vent its spleen in public. By that evening, the angry comments had begun to pile atop Sanchez’s story like a game of Tetris. Many sounded like this one by an especially splenetic commenter calling himself FiftycalTX: “The battle of the ALAMO has been taught for close to 200 years and no ISIS REVISIONISM is going to get it ‘untaught.’ Any ‘teachers’ that have a problem with calling the patriots that FOUGHT AND DIED at the Alamo ‘heroic’ need to return to New Germany or where ever they came from.”

That’s the kind of over-the-top comment writers tend to cite to make you think all traditionalists are ungrammatical lunatics. In fact, some were more lucid, as in this comment from someone calling himself Keith Smith: “The good people of Texas need to see this for what it really is: an insidious attempt by leftist radicals and hand-wringing American apologists to rewrite our proud Texas history and twist our struggles for freedom into unspectacular yarns of Yankee colonialism and thinly veiled white supremacy. They want to make us the oppressors and bad guys in the eyes of our children.”

The real fireworks came the same afternoon the article went live when Texas governor Greg Abbott tweeted, “Stop political correctness in our schools. Of course Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’! I fully expect the State Board of Education to agree.”

It's entirely possible that the conservative politicians who leapt onto the governor’s Friday afternoon bandwagon were genuinely offended by the proposed changes and did not consider the political advantage in expressing this grievance two months before an election. It’s also possible that a diet solely consisting of refined sugar, tobacco, and whiskey is good for you. The first in, George P. Bush, chimed in just sixteen minutes later.



Friday, September 2, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt twelve)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

As a new century dawned, the reigning champion of the Heroic Anglo Narrative was George W. Bush, the Connecticut native who as Texas governor in the 1990s was especially fond of Alamo references. When, during a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame, someone asked him about a fistfight involving his fellow Texan Nolan Ryan, Bush inexplicably chirped, “Remember the Alamo.” Hands down his most memorable invocation came when the professional golfer Ben Crenshaw invited him to address the U.S. Ryder Cup team during a 1999 match against a European team outside Boston. The United States was trailing badly that morning when Bush walked into the clubhouse and simply read aloud Travis’s letter, the one that finished with “Victory or Death.” He then said “Godspeed” and left. The moment had the intended effect. “Let’s go out and kill them!” one player blurted. When the Americans rallied to an improbable win, Governor Bush and the Alamo legend reaped a share of the credit.



Thursday, September 1, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt eleven)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Walt Disney’s Disneyland debuted on ABC on a Wednesday evening, October 27, 1954, and proved an immediate hit. When the producers proposed an episode based on Crockett, Disney was skeptical. Crockett was no longer what you would call a household name. The writers, though, crafted a story line Disney could not resist. The trick was to treat all of Crockett’s boasts as fact, and then make his death at the Alamo the climax of a three-part miniseries. Part one would focus on Crockett’s time killing Native Americans, and of course bears, the next would cover his time in Washington, and the final episode would end with glory at the Alamo. The miniseries showed little resemblance to the facts of history, but there was no doubt it was a great story, that of an honest man betrayed by the world who nevertheless sacrificed himself so others might live. If that sounds a little familiar, a little, shall we say, biblical, well, that was very much on purpose.



Wednesday, August 31, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt ten)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

In a state that was no stranger to white supremacists, few cities were as open about their racism as Dallas in the 1920s, years in which the Ku Klux Klan controlled almost every significant position in local government. Looking back decades later, D magazine termed ’20-era Dallas “the most racist city in America,” and it’s hard to argue.

It’s ironic that the newspaper that eventually brought the Dallas Klan to its knees, The Dallas Morning News, would give birth to a creation that probably did as much as any to popularize the Anglocentric myths of the Alamo. It was a comic strip, a hugely popular component of metropolitan newspapers at a time when editors triggered bidding wars to see who got to print the latest episodes of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

The owner of the Morning News was a proponent of public education, and in 1926 an editor suggested the paper develop its own comic strip devoted to Texas history. A columnist named John Rosenfield Jr. wrote it, and the paper’s cartoonist Jack I. Patton drew it. They called it Texas History Movies—at the time, comic strips were sometimes called “movies in print.” Between October 1926 and June 1928, the paper cranked out 428 episodes, a sizable number of which were stunningly racist. Texas History Movies referred to Mexican-Americans as “greasers” and “tamale eaters,” mocked African-Americans as stupid, and called Native Americans “redskins.” One panel declared that Lipan, the name of an Apache tribe, meant “vagabone or bum.” It portrayed Texas slaves as “unwittingly happy,” as one modern reviewer puts it, and stated that all enslaved Black people were fully educated and free to change masters at will. Seriously. This was in a major Texas city in 1928.



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt nine)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Fifty years after the fall of the Alamo, Texas pride was already very much a thing. Writers such as Yoakum, Potter, and Pennybacker had created a rich folk history of the revolution and inculcated a collective memory of how the state came into being, what modern scholars sometimes refer to as the Texas Creation Myth. Anglos embraced the folklore with gusto, proud of their unique history. And as far as most were concerned, every word was gospel truth.

Which became a bit of a problem after the first academic historians arrived in Texas with the opening of the University of Texas in 1883. The professional study of American history in the late 1800s was very much in its infancy, at least in Texas, and after 1893 was heavily influenced by the so-called frontier thesis advanced by a University of Wisconsin professor named Frederick Jackson Turner. In a paper delivered before the American Historical Association that year, Turner argued that the Anglo conquest of the American West generated a spirit of freedom, democracy, and egalitarianism and created a uniquely American culture. This was history by, for, and about the white man; Native Americans, Black people, and Latinos were marginal characters at best, two-legged buffalo at worst. To Turner, America’s exquisite society more than justified the barbarous means used to achieve God’s will. Practically overnight it became law in history department nationally. It would remain so for decades.



Monday, August 29, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt eight)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

We could cite another dozen examples along these lines, but this stuff gets pretty tiresome. Not all such early books were so doctrinaire, though. One or two were actually critical, most notably The History of Texas, written by a caustic Gonzales seminarian named David Barnett Edward. A rare Texas Tory, Edward was no fan of Texans or their revolt. He praised Santa Anna’s immigration policies as “enlightened,” going on to proclaim the Americans had “by their perverse conduct, forfeited every claim to protection from civil law.” Published in 1836, Edward’s book prompted Texas’s first literary uproar, and not only because it plagiarized sections of Mary Holley’s work. Stephen F. Austin termed it “a slander on the people of Texas.”

The Alamo did not figure prominently in any of this work. Where it was mentioned, authors had little to offer beyond what had been in the newspapers. With historians stymied, at least for the moment, writers of fiction filled the void, which by and large was not a good thing; Mary Holley was practically Chaucer compared with this crew. Much of this “literature” consists of trashy potboilers written by outsiders using the Texas Revolt as a fresh backdrop, typically with Santa Anna or a stand-in portrayed as a Mexican version of Snidely Whiplash. The late University of Texas professor Don Graham points out the startling number of early Texas novels used as vehicles for anti-Catholicism, the Texians fighting the “dark designs of priests and the hierarchical and undemocratic structure of the Catholic church.” Forget Santa Anna; the real enemy was Father Tim. The evil priest in 1888’s Remember the Alamo, to cite but one example, is consumed with hatred for Texas Protestants. “If these American heretics were only in my power!” he seethes. “I would cut a throat—just one throat—every day of my life.”

It's a short hop from anticlericalism to overt racism, which would infuse Alamo-based fiction after the mid-1800s. In these books, the Mexican characters are inevitably cruel, dirty, and treacherous. In many they are referred to as “greasers.” An 1856 “historical romance” set during the the revolution helpfully imagines how visitors to Matamoros coined the term: “The people look greasy, their clothes are greasy, their dogs are greasy, their houses are greasy—everywhere grease and filth.” (You know racists are pretty serious when they start in on pets.) It just goes one and on. In a 1909 Texas novel, The Trapper’s Bride, the author calls the Mexican army “savage legions . . . given to every kind of horrible excesses, and whose arms were deeply stained with the blood of helpless old men, feeble women and innocent children.”



Sunday, August 28, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt seven)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

De Zavala was encouraged to find a pair of Tejanos, San Antonio’s Ángel Navarro and Francisco Ruiz, who were in attendance. He bunked with them in a rented carpentry shop. But on the very first day, the trio realized they had been badly outflanked. A delegate named George Childress presented the convention with a declaration of independence; to the surprise of almost everyone, and the evident dismay of de Zavala, it was adopted unanimously the next day. De Zavala signed it too. He had little choice. It was clearly going to pass anyway. Afterward, there was a constitution to write. De Zavala took the lead crafting its section on executive powers, and sat on the defense and flag-design committees. The Texas constitution remains the only one in world history to guarantee slavery and actually outlaw any and all emancipation. No free Black people were to be allowed. In a direct reflection of cotton’s wholesale dependence on slave labor, Texas was to be the most militant slavocracy anywhere.



Saturday, August 27, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt six)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Born into a frontier family in what’s now eastern Tennessee in 1786, Crockett spent his early years driving cattle and serving as a scout during the Creek War and Jackson’s Florida invasion. Afterward, settling as a farmer near the Alabama border, he gained election to the state legislature in 1821. When a flood wiped out the farm, Crockett and his family—now deeply in debt—were forced to move into a cabin in northwest Tennessee. This was serious frontier living, and it was there that Crockett displayed a keen talent for, of all things, killing bears. By one count he shot 105 during a single season.

History would have forgotten Crockett had he not developed his second talent: telling people about killing all those bears. It began, we are told, when a dandyish legislator teased Crockett as “the gentleman from the “cane”—“cane” apparently being an obscure Tennesseeism for a heavy forest. Crockett capitalized on the incident by turning his teasing image as a backwood backwoodsman into a strength, pouring it on thick with tales of killing “bahrs” and “Injuns” and river pirates, at the same time making fun of the rich and pompous. Once this act caught on, he adopted a syrupy drawl and syntax; the word “known,” for instance, became “know’d.”

Crockett’s was a gentle kind of frontier populism, and it worked. He leveraged his popularity into a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. But what would transform Crockett from a curiosity into a celebrity was Americans’ newfound appetite for tales of life along the growing country’s frontiers. The 1820s brought a flowering of such literature, notably James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the woodsman Natty Bumppo and including The Last of the Mohicans, one of the century’s most popular books. These books renewed interest in Daniel Boone, who became America’s first popular hero.



Friday, August 26, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt five)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Tall, sandy-haired, and charismatic, Bowie was an early prototype, perhaps the first, of the roaming western gunfighter who sought to parlay his fame—and he was famous in his day—into the big score he never quite pulled off. Raised in a large frontier Louisiana family, he grew to become a strapping backwoodsman adept with guns and knives. After surviving the 1819 Long Expedition, he went into business with two of his brothers, and here his story darkens considerably. The Bowies’ big moneymaking scheme, the venture that defined Jim’s early adulthood, revolved around two unsavory projects, smuggling illegal African slaves into the United States and flat-out real estate fraud.

The importation of enslaved people into the United States had been illegal since 1808, but as we’ve seen, that created an opportunity for Jean and Pierre Lafitte, who smuggled African slaves from Cuba and sold them for a pittance at their base on Galveston Island. The Bowies signed on as middlemen, driving groups of emaciated, enslaved Black people into Louisiana. At the border they cloaked themselves as customs officers, earning a reward of half their purchase price. Their costs halved, they then swooped in and bought their own slaves at auction, giving them legal title to resell them. The profits were huge.

Jim Bowie used his share of the profits to launch a land fraud “on an almost industrial scale,” as one biographer, William C. Davis, put it. In 1821 he forged dozens, perhaps hundreds, of deeds and used them to snatch up thousands of acres in unclaimed land all across northern Louisiana. A lengthy investigation ensued, but at some point all of Bowie’s paperwork mysteriously disappeared from the investigators’ offices, ending the probe.



Thursday, August 25, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt four)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

The loudest such voice, the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy, had traveled widely in Texas between 1832 and 1835, and knew many of those involved, from Juan Almonte to Sam Houston. When the war was over, he would write a pamphlet alleging that it was initiated by a conspiracy of Northern land speculators and Texas slaveholders whose intention was to bring Texas into the United States—but only after chopping it into as many as fifteen states, thereby upsetting the country’s fragile balance of free and slave states.

Lundy would find an adherent in the former president John Quincy Adams, by then a Massachusetts congressman and a leading abolitionist. “The war now raging in Texas,” Adams charged, “is a Mexican civil war, and a war for the re-establishment of Slavery where it was abolished. It is not a servile war, but a war between Slavery and Emancipation, and every possible effort has been made to drive us into this war, on the side of slavery.”



Wednesday, August 24, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt three)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

There was a new face around the campfire that evening: Sam Houston, who had wobbled into camp on a tiny yellow stallion. Everyone knew Houston’s tale of woe, if not the man himself. He was hands down the most famous person in Texas, a politician once considered so gifted that, had he not blown up so spectacularly, he might have reached the White House. Instead, he ended up a blackout drunk living with the Cherokee in what is now Oklahoma.

Born in Virginia in 1793, the same year as Austin, Houston grew up in frontier Tennessee. No fan of working the family farm, he ran away to live with a Cherokee family at sixteen. He later joined the army and was severely wounded during the Creek War while serving under Andrew Jackson, who became his mentor. After the army, he became a lawyer, got himself named Tennessee’s solicitor general, and was then elected to Congress in 1823. With Jackson’s backing, he was elected governor in 1827.

He was a rising star on the national stage. People whispered he might succeed Jackson as president. But then, in 1829, he married a plantation owner’s daughter named Eliza Allen. Weeks later she left him—apparently for another man—and Houston fell apart. He resigned as governor and decamped to live with Cherokee friends in Oklahoma. He never talked again about what had happened.



Tuesday, August 23, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt two)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

Reaching the capital, Austin had one solid reason for hope: Santa Anna. This is one of Texas history’s great ironies. This, after all, is the man generations of Texas politicians have compared to every loathsome dictator from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein, the Voldemort of Texas schoolchildren’s nightmares, the great Mexican boygeyman, a bloodthirsty killer, a fiendish, mustache-twirling despot guilty of every conceivable crime from mass murder to body odor. Okay, that’s overdoing it. But not by much. If Texans could elect a National Villain, and we’re a little surprised they haven’t tried, it would be Santa Anna hands down. Lee Harvey Oswald couldnt’ve even force a runoff.

Yet few remember today that before Santa Anna was Texas’s enemy, he was its friend. He is a singular figure in Mexican history, a man who held the presidency eleven times in twenty-two years. In person he was nothing special, wavy black hair, sallow complexion, a man of breeding and bearing and unswerving confidence. Despite all the bad movies you’ve seen, he was not flamboyant or a shouter; he was usually the quietest man in the room.



Monday, August 22, 2022

the last book I ever read (Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, excerpt one)

from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford:

From the beginning, the prospect of American settlements in Texas was entirely dependent on slavery. It was no secret. Everyone knew it. Austin would say it over and over and over: The only reason Americans would come to Texas was to farm cotton, and they would not do that without slaves. They really didn’t know any other way.

Slavery hadn’t been an issue under Spanish law, which allowed it. Wealthy Tejanos like the Seguíns owned slaves themselves. But slavery would be a problem in the new country of Mexico. As backward as many Americans liked to portray it, the new Mexican government was dedicated to liberal ideals. Equal rights for all races had been the revolution’s rallying cry; in a land where 60 percent of the population was of mixed race, this was a powerful message. A new wave of liberal legislators, many committed to liberty and equality for all, thought slavery an abomination. There were only eight thousand slaves left in Mexico anyway? Who really cared if they were set free?

Stephen F. Austin, that’s who. Not that you’d know it from most history books. The best biography of Austin devotes fifteen pages to the year he spent lobbying in Mexico City, but of his efforts attempting to make sure his people could keep their slaves, there is but a single sentence. Austin was not some pro-slavery zealot. He belonged to a long line of Southern intellectuals going back to Thomas Jefferson who understood slavery was morally repugnant but who nevertheless owned slaves because it was the best way to make money. In other words, Stephen F. Austin was a sellout, a not-uncommon kind in his day.



Sunday, August 21, 2022

the last book I ever read (David Plante's Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, excerpt fourteen)

from Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (New York Review Books Classics) by David Plante:

At our Thursday luncheon in the Greek restaurant Germaine said to me, “You like difficult women, don’t you?”

I said in a Tulsan accent, “I guess I do.”

“Well then,” she said, “I’ll introduce you to my mother.”



Saturday, August 20, 2022

the last book I ever read (David Plante's Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, excerpt thirteen)

from Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (New York Review Books Classics) by David Plante:

That evening in my room we watched television, one stupid programme after another. In her nightgown, Germaine sat in an armchair and knitted; I lay on my bed, my feet at the top, my head at the bottom, pillows under my elbows. Germaine kept getting up to change the channels, saying, “What shit American television is.” She came to the musical The Sound of Music, and we watched a bit of it, both saying, “This is awful, awful, awful,” and Germaine changed to other channels, but more awful programmes appeared, and we always came round to The Sound of Music, which, after all, we watched. The governess to a family of unhappy Austrian children wants to make them happy, and she does this by contriving clothes for all of them out of the flowered curtains of her bedroom; happy in their new clothes, they go out into the whole of Switzerland, singing. I saw Germaine lower her knitting to her lap as she watched the governess lead the children up into the green mountains, all of them singing to the sky. Then she turned to me, her lower lip stuck out; tears were dripping down her face, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. She said, “This is shit,” and got up and changed the channel.

We slept with the door open between our rooms.



Friday, August 19, 2022

the last book I ever read (David Plante's Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three, excerpt twelve)

from Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (New York Review Books Classics) by David Plante:

I was always vividly aware of Germaine as a woman, a large, imposing woman. Her intelligence was to me the intelligence of a woman, because she had, as a woman, thought out her role in the world; the complexity of the role required intelligence to see it, and she had seen it, I thought, thoroughly. Even when, once, she said to me, “I don’t understand women at all,” I took this as an observation of what it was to be a woman. So, if I with some degree of logic believed Germaine understood me, it followed that I believed she understood me with a woman’s intelligence. I wanted to know what she understood.

I was drunk on champagne.

I wanted her to tell me what she thought about me. I believed I needed her to tell me. She stared at me. I stared back.