Category Archives: History

Two Poems about Rain

The Rainy Day
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) is best known for “The Song of Hiawatha.” He also wrote many other celebrated poems. And then there’s ‘The Rainy Day’, which isn’t numbered among his most famous. But it is one of the finest poems written about rain, so deserves a few words of analysis for that reason alone.

Rain and misery are two certainties in life, at least in the New England that Longfellow knew so well. Longfellow’s poem uses the rain/misery connection to offer a misconception about life. In the first stanza, Longfellow talks of the rain and wind outside. He uses the second stanza to discuss the internal, miserable weather raging within his heart. For the final stanza, he shifts from simply describing his mood to the authoritative, as he commands his heart to be of good cheer and remember that, although it may be raining now, the sun is still shining behind the clouds, though he can’t currently see it. When we’re miserable or sad, it can be very difficult to recall happiness, to remember what’s now out of sight. In his penultimate line, we find the most famous line in this poem: ‘Into each life some rain must fall.’ Misery is part of a common lot of humanity. Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying, “When it rains look for rainbows when it’s dark look for stars.” Longfellow might have been well-advised to listen to Wilde’s advice.

There Will Come Soft Rains
By Sara Teasdale

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Unlike the majority of Teasdale’s war poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains” has not been entirely forgotten. Three decades after its initial publication, in the wake of World War II, Ray Bradbury featured the poem as the foundation of a similarly post-apocalyptic short story, also titled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In his re-appropriation, Bradbury portrays a future world that has been destroyed by mankind’s heedless progress, in a gruesome fashion that I don’t want to discuss. Bradbury’s story shares with Teasdale’s poem the terrifying insight that mankind is no longer connected, organically, to the natural world. The only species capable of mass, mechanized, self-destruction, humans are utterly alone, detached from a natural world that no longer even notices we are there. Imported into the futuristic world of 2057, Teasdale’s words become bitterly ironic. As early as World War I, Bradbury implies, mankind had been warned.

The poem awakens that old sentimental longing to return to a state of deep connectedness with nature. It even deploys a set of familiar stylistic markers that seem to have been borrowed directly from a nineteenth-century aesthetic economy. The poem’s alliteration, for instance — “whistling their whims,” “feathery fire”— and the sing-song rhymes— “ground/sound,” “night/white,” “fire/wire,” all evoke a sense of comforting gentility. But this veneer of conventional sentimentality merely heightens the profound impact of nature’s heartlessness. The poem’s sweet, sentimental quality and its tranquil, idyllic descriptors are deceiving. Ultimately, all of our sentimental feelings about “frogs” and “wild-plum trees,” as well as the language through which we have constructed those myths of a connection to nature, are tossed, mockingly, back at us. The reader is led to believe that the “soft rains” will signal our own renewal and that the birds will sing to celebrate our salvation. 

The poem challenges those idyllic fantasies with the reality of a natural world dominated by indifference, motivated only by its own survival, and oblivious to the existence or extinction of man. However, Teasdale locates a kernel of hope in this harsh vision. Devoted exclusively to its own survival, nature, in Teasdale’s conception, proffers no comfort to mankind, but can, nonetheless, provide the key to our own preservation. Rather than a retreat into an irrecoverable, idealized past. Teasdale was influenced to write this poem by reading Charles Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species. In such, she was urging her audience to adopt the ways of nature—to focus more whole-heartedly on their own survival.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in July 1918—less than two months after the passage of the Sedition Act. Meant to strengthen the provisions of the already-repressive Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, was designed to quash American opposition to the war, outlawing “virtually all criticism of the war or the government.” Following its passage, anthologies and magazines continued to publish a small number of anti-war poems, but only if the poems were strategically nonspecific in their critique and refrained from offering a political alternative to the war. This climate of censorship casts a different light on the apparent obliqueness of Teasdale’s anti-war poems. Rather than a limitation, their historical imprecision might be what enabled their circulation at the height of World War I. It is possible, in fact, that Teasdale’s cultivation of a demure, “poetess” persona might have, contradictorily, enabled her to publish anti-war poetry more freely.


Losers and Suckers

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Weedon E. Osborne
United States Navy (Dental Corps)

By now, I think we’ve all heard the president’s disparaging remarks about veterans. In an article in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that numerous witnesses heard Trump make excuses for not visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in 2018. Trump was to visit there on November 10, 2018 to mark the armistice’s 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. This coincided with the 243rd birthday of the Marine Corps. One of Trump’s excuses was the rainy weather might mess up his hair, his fucking hair. It looks like shit on the best of days, and he’s worried what a little rain might do to it! Officially, he said, “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. All of the other world leaders drove there, but Trump couldn’t be bothered, saying, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

While many of you might not know about the importance of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, most of you know I’m a World War I historian. I want to tell you why that cemetery is significant. It is located 53.5 miles outside of Paris (roughly an hour-long drive) and contains the headstones of 2,289 soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) mostly from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and the larger campaign in the Marne Valley. One of those “losers” was Lt. Weedon Osborne of Chicago, a Medal of Honor recipient. His citation for the medal reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the Fifth Regiment, United States Marines, in actual conflict with the enemy and under fire during the advance on Bouresche, France on June 6 1918. In the hottest of the fighting when the Marines made their famous advance on Bouresche at the southern edge of Belleau Wood, Lieutenant (j.g.) Osborne threw himself zealously into the work of rescuing the wounded. Extremely courageous in the performance of this perilous task, he was killed while carrying a wounded officer to a place of safety. By his exceptional fortitude, inspiring initiative, and selfless devotion to duty, Lieutenant (j.g.) Osborne reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country. 

Osborne was obviously no “loser.”  He had “exceptional fortitude, inspiring initiative, and selfless devotion to duty,” which Donald Trump does not. He selflessly sought to aid the wounded during the Battle of Belleau Wood, and was killed while carrying an injured officer to safety on June 6, 1918.

Alongside the Battles of Fallujah, Khe Sanh, Chosin, and Iwo Jima, the Battle of Belleau Wood occupies a hallowed place in U.S. Marine Corps lore and history. Every U.S. Marine knows the famous quotes from the Marines fighting in the 1918 battle: “Retreat, hell we just got here!” by Capt. Lloyd Williams who received three Silver Star citations and a Purple Heart, and “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?” by Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daley one of only nineteen men to have received the Medal of Honor twice.

The battlefield of Belleau Wood lays about five miles west of the town of Château-Thierry the site of another AEF battle. Looking at the strategic context in early 1918, Belleau Wood was only a small piece of a major campaign that saw the American forces help French and British armies stem the onslaught of the massive German Spring Offensive. On March 21, the Germans launched their attack along the Western Front in France. This was made possible because a peace treaty with the new Russian Bolshevik government had freed up German units deployed on the Eastern Front. The German leadership hoped the influx of 50 divisions could overwhelm the Allied forces in France bringing the war to an end before millions of American reinforcements could cross the Atlantic. The Spring Offensive nearly reached Paris coming close enough to shell the city. The loss of Paris would have likely resulted in a German victory in WWI. However, while the German offensive made significant gains in the first few weeks of the battle, they began to falter by May during the Aisne Offensive. The German assault was weakened because American units like the 2nd Division and its 4th Marine Brigade joined the fray to stop the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood. 

After three weeks of intense combat, a report announced the 4th Marine Brigade’s success with the message, “Belleau Wood now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” The French government renamed it Bois de la Brigade de Marine to honor the incredible sacrifices and fierce struggles there and awarded members of the 4th Marine Brigade the French Croix de Guerre. Although a victory for the Americans, the Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade. Of its complement of 9,500 men, the brigade suffered 1,000 killed in action, and 4,000 wounded, gassed, or missing equaling a 55 percent casualty rate. 

General Pershing, commander of the AEF said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” Pershing also said, “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” The battle had been brutal. “It has been a living hell,” Lt. Clifton B. Cates, 24, a future Marine Corps commandant wrote to his mother. “We were shelled all night with shrapnel and gas shells. [….] It was mustard gas and a lot of the men were burned.” It was a battle that changed the Marine Corps. “For all intents and purposes, the old warriors of the U.S. Marine Corps were virtually wiped out,” wrote historian, George B. Clark.

In a separate conversation on the 2018 trip, Trump referred to the 1,811 soldiers and Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed. Trump also asked aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” He couldn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies. While I realize the U.S. entry into WWI is complicated and controversial, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated the principles for peace that were to be used for negotiations to end World War I, and are a good starter for understanding the entry of the United States into the Great War. The ideas expressed by Wilson’s Fourteen Points included free trade, open diplomacy, national self-determination, and the League of Nations; ideas which remain as relevant today as they were a century ago. Wilson transformed the primary objective of American foreign policy from isolation to internationalism. 

Trump could learn a lot from Wilson, whose vision of a world made safe and prosperous by the collective action of all nations, is a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy. Instead of looking to Wilson for his positive attributes, Trump is more closely aligned with Wilson’s negative characteristics. Wilson tolerated no dissent during the war, and authorized serious violations of Americans’ civil liberties in his quest for victory. Playing to his base, Trump has incessantly targeted the most vulnerable. His anti-immigrant measures began with the Muslim ban. He has separated families, detained individuals who posed no threat to others or risk of flight, sought to deny asylum because they were directly contrary to the statute, and attempted to rescind protected status for the Dreamers. 

Sadly, Wilson’s zest for humanitarian justice did not extend to African-Americans. He supported segregation in government departments and did little to stop the waves of anti-black violence and race riots that swept over the land during his administration particularly in the years after the war. In the present day, Trump praised white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and referred to African countries as “shitholes.” His Justice Department sought to back off from consent decrees requiring police to treat their citizens with equal respect and dignity. And he has done nothing to help ease the current racial tensions in the United States instead fanning the flames of his conservative base by disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement.

For those who might not believe the allegations in The Atlantic article, look at the statements he’s made about military personnel in interviews and speeches. He has no respect for anyone who might do something selfless because he cannot fathom doing something that would not benefit him personally.  To quote The Atlantic article:

“He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,” one of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told me. “He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.” Kelly’s friend went on to say, “Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain.”

Retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis shared The Atlantic article on Twitter and described the military’s cemeteries as “sacred shrines to those who have given everything.” Stavardis suggested the lack of denials by John Kelly and retired Marine General Jim Mattis, Trump’s former Chief of Staff and Defense Secretary respectively were notable. Senior and former military leaders have struggled with how to respond to a report that Trump referred to U.S. service members killed in combat as “losers,” as the president attacked the allegations as “fake news.” The only thing fake here is Trump’s patriotism.

Trump lacks empathy when he lashes out at critics. Instead, he reaches for petty insults. His contempt for service and heroism extends to events throughout history. Trump finds the notion of military service challenging to understand, and volunteering to serve especially incomprehensible. Remember, the president has never served in the military but claims his attendance at New York Military Academy was an equivalent to military service. He also made the idiotic statement comparing his efforts to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases to the Vietnam War saying it constituted his “personal Vietnam.”

And if you still think he’s not lying when he denies the allegations in The Atlantic article, he can’t even tell the simple truth about the 2018 trip. Trump told reporters over the weekend he “called home” to Melania at the time and told her how upset he was for not being able to visit the cemetery. Trump claimed, “I spoke to my wife and I said, I hate this. I came here to go to that ceremony. And to the one the following day which I did go to. I feel terribly. And that was the end of it.” The truth about this is he couldn’t have “called home” because Melania was on the same trip and was scheduled to attend the cemetery visit with him!

And what did Trump do instead of visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery? He spent hours on that Saturday afternoon holed up watching television inside the U.S. ambassador’s residence. Later that night, Trump and Melania had dinner with French President Emanuel Macron. He could watch TV and have a fancy dinner, but he could not be bothered to visit a cemetery for soldiers who died in one of the United States’ most significant battles in World War I. He is a total disgrace. He needs to be voted out of office along with all of those who have supported him, because, without the Senate’s support, he would not still be our president. 

While I find Trump’s remarks and lack of empathy for our military men and women deplorable, I find it even more upsetting that Fox News and his rabid base do not believe The Atlantic article could contain any truth. Saturday, my mother called. I think you know by now she is a loyal Trump supporter. After asking me if I had called her because she had three phone calls she couldn’t answer and doesn’t know how to use Caller ID, she began to tell me, “I just told your sister that we need to pray that Donald Trump is reelected.” To which I, in turn, brought up the allegations in The Atlanticarticle. Her response was, “You don’t believe that mess, do you?” I told her, “Why wouldn’t I believe it? Considering what he has said in the past about veterans, and especially since he called John McCain a loser.” His base doesn’t care what he does as long as he is part of the Republican Party. 

My mother is not the only one to claim The Atlantic article is fake news. Saturday evening, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro called the claims “absurd,” and Greg Gutfeld, another Fox News host, called the Atlantic’s story “a hoax” and “a scam” that was “created in a lab.” However, Fox News seems to be divided on whether the claims are valid. Fox’s national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, confirmed the allegations. Conor Powell, a former Fox News foreign correspondent, backed up Griffin’s report saying, “Jennifer is a straight shooter and always pursues reporting with the goal of uncovering the truth.” Anchor Neil Cavuto then endorsed Griffin’s work. “Jennifer, you are a very good reporter,” he told her. Then, addressing his audience, he said, “She’s pretty scrupulous when it comes to making sure all the I’s are dotted, all the t’s are crossed.” Senior Political Analyst for Fox News, Brit Hume tweeted, “This is bullshit. Jen plays it straight and always has.” Hume’s tweet was in response to a tweet by Steve Milloy, a Fox News contributor, who claimed Griffin was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe, just maybe, some Fox News enthusiasts and Trump supporters will see the light and realize the article was not a hoax.

Let’s vote for someone who cares about our veterans. Someone who is the father of a veteran. Vote for Biden on November 3, 2020. 

P.S. I felt this post was more important and timely than my usual Tuesday poetry post. The poetry post will be postponed until tomorrow.


Happy Labor Day

Labor Day is celebrated each year on the first Monday in September. It was born amid violence and unrest over oppressive working conditions. For many, Labor Day weekend signals the end of summer and an opportunity to host a barbecue or head to the beach one final time. This year, I pray that the barbecues and beach trips will be done with socially-distancing. I fear it won’t be, and there will be a major spike in COVID-19 cases. 

This usually festive national holiday—celebrated every year in the United States and Canada on the same day—has revolutionary origins. Labor Day was originally commemorated through parades, political speeches, and labor union activities but was born amid rising unrest over oppressive working conditions—and a massive strike that threatened to turn violent. It feels strange to celebrate Labor Day when so many are out of a job because of the pandemic. This year, we not only need to celebrate those who keep our country running, but also, we need to remember those who aren’t able to work right now.

By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had made working life miserable for people around the world. In many places, workers labored for at least 12 hours a day six days a week in mines, factories, railroads, and mills. Children were especially exploited as cheap laborers who were less likely to strike. Sweatshops locked workers in small, crowded spaces, and punished them for talking or singing as they worked. Outrage at these conditions galvanized the burgeoning labor movement, which organized strikes and rallies in the 1860s and 1870s. In addition to shorter workdays and safer conditions, workers fought for recognition of their contributions.

In the wake of a printers strike in April 1872—which saw 10,000 people march through the streets of Toronto to appeal for a shorter work week—Canadian cities began to host annual parades in honor of workers. Ten years later, the U.S. followed suit. On September 5, 1882, New York City union leaders organized what is now considered the nation’s first Labor Day parade. Ten thousand workers marched along city streets in an event culminating in a picnic, speeches, fireworks, and dancing. Organizers proclaimed the day “a general holiday for the workingmen of this city.” They continued to host the parade in the years after, and in 1884 the event was fixed on the first Monday in September.

More than a century after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” But McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. What is clear is that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.

New York’s Labor Day parade wasn’t an official holiday. Participants had to take unpaid leave. The movement to declare Labor Day an official holiday began in the late 1880s. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to designate a Labor Day holiday, followed later that year by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Yet the first Monday in September wasn’t the only option for celebrating workers’ rights. An alternative had emerged in 1886: May Day.

May Day, which is now observed in countries across the world, is also called International Workers’ Day, but actually originated in the U.S. On May 1, 1886, in what came to be known as the Haymarket Riot, workers flooded Chicago streets to demand an eight-hour workday. The demonstrations lasted for days, punctuated by scuffles between workers and police. On May 4, after police ordered a crowd to disperse, a bomb detonated. Seven police officers and up to eight civilians were killed. The perpetrator was never identified.

In 1889, an international gathering of socialists in Paris officially declared May Day a holiday honoring workers’ rights. Although it gained steam internationally and was backed by some U.S. labor unions, President Grover Cleveland feared May Day “would become a memorial to the Haymarket radicals.” He pressed state legislatures to select the September date instead. By 1894, about half of U.S. states had adopted Labor Day.

It would take another clash in the American Midwest to make Labor Day a federal holiday. On May 11, 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railroad car manufacturer near Chicago, went on strike to protest their low wages and 16-hour workdays. On June 22, members of the powerful American Railway Union (ARU) joined their struggle by refusing to move Pullman’s cars from one train to another, thus crippling rail traffic across the country. In Washington, D.C., politicians sought to placate the labor movement. At the time, federal legislation to designate Labor Day a public holiday had been languishing in Congress for 10 months after U.S. Senator James Kyle, a Populist from South Dakota, had introduced it in August 1893. To appease the strikers and their supporters, the Senate quickly passed the bill on June 22, the same day the ARU joined the Pullman strike. The bill passed the House four days later and President Cleveland signed it into law on June 28, 1894. Although the holiday is often described as a conciliatory gesture at a time of crisis, Cleveland was hardly an ally to the Pullman strikers. On July 3, just days after signing the bill, he ordered federal troops to Chicago to end the boycott. Furious strikers began to riot, and on July 7, national guardsmen fired into a mob and killed as many as 30 people.

In spite of its bloody aftermath, the creation of a Labor Day holiday made waves. In Canada, Prime Minister John Thompson also faced mounting pressure from the labor movement. On July 23, 1894, less than a month after the U.S. bill had passed, Thompson followed Cleveland’s lead in designating the first Monday in September an official holiday for workers.

But the holiday did not improve conditions for the people it sought to honor and was little more than lip service from politicians. As the U.S. House Committee on Labor said in its 1894 report on the legislation: “So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” It would take another 44 years for the U.S. to set a minimum wage, mandate a shorter workweek, and limit child labor with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Whatever the intentions, the creation of a holiday devoted solely to workers was nonetheless an important achievement for the labor movement. “Labor Day marks a new epoch in the annals of human history,” wrote Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, in the New York Times in 1910. “Among all the festive days of the year…there is not one which stands so conspicuously for social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September.”

On a more personal note, Labor Day is a depressing day for me this year. It falls on the birthday of a friend of mine who died; he was one of the few people I could tell anything to and not be judged for it. That means a lot because I internalize a lot of stuff that I really should talk to friends or family about, but sometimes I just fear that I will be judged for my feelings. When things are really bothering me or even when I have exciting news, I don’t want those things to be trivialized, and I have had that happen a lot. I am also not a perfect person, but I don’t like to be beaten up over my imperfections. My friend never did any of those things, and I miss him so much. It’s been nearly five years, and while things have gotten better, I still miss him tremendously.

This year also marks the first year that my town is not having its annual Labor Day Weekend celebrations. Usually, the town square is filled with carnival-like games and food trucks, and constant live entertainment can be heard all over town. Yet, this year, it is so quiet. The weekend always culminates on Labor Day with a parade. Honestly, there isn’t much to the parade. It’s your average small-town parade, except that the entire Corps of Cadets at my university marches in the parade in their uniforms. If you combine all the other parade groups and floats together, they wouldn’t equal the size of the Corps. It is by far one of the most impressive sights in town as they march in perfect unison down the street. I will miss seeing the Corps this year because they are quarantined on campus in an effort to keep them safe from the pandemic. It will just be a quiet Monday here for me, at least that’s the plan.


Victory Over Japan Day

It started 81 years ago yesterday with the German invasion of Poland and ended 75 years ago today with Japan signing the Instrument of Surrender. World War II was the bloodiest conflict in human history. The world breathed an enormous collective sigh of relief. Celebrations broke out across the free world as a result of the war finally and truly being over. The dark war years gave birth to a new, optimistic future as the world looked hopefully towards an existence without world wars and massive human suffering.

Seventy-five years ago today, the formal ceremonies marking Japan’s surrender, took place aboard the USS Missouri. Early on Sunday, September 2, 1945, aboard the new 45,000-ton battleship USS Missouri and before representatives of nine Allied nations, the Japanese signed their surrender. At the ceremony, General Douglas MacArthur stated that the Japanese and their conquerors did not meet “in a spirit of mistrust, malice or hatred but rather, it is for us, both victors and vanquished, to rise to that higher dignity which alone benefits the sacred purposes we are about to serve.”

Despite these words, none of the high-ranking officers saluted any of the Japanese delegates. General Carl A. Spaatz later revealed that US planes had been ready with bombs to halt any last-minute treacherous act by Japan. Seeing a deck full of high-ranking Allied officers on the USS Missouri might have presented a tempting target for a final suicide attack.

Why was the USS Missouri chosen as the location for the Japanese surrender to take place? After all, the battleship had served for less than a year in the Pacific War. It was the last battleship commissioned into the United States Navy, although not the last laid down.  The Missouri participated in several operations in the last year of the war, including the bombardments of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Japan. For the rest of the time, she escorted US carrier groups, protecting them from attacks. In May 1945, the Missouri became the flagship for Admiral Bull Halsey’s 3rd Fleet. In this capacity, Missouri led the Allied armada that entered Tokyo Bay on August 29, 1945.

Numerous distinguished ships were present at the surrender. The USS South Dakota had perhaps the most illustrious record among the battleships, having served in the Pacific theater since 1942. The USS West Virginia had survived Pearl Harbor. The HMS Duke of York and the HMS King George V each had sunk a German battleship (the Scharnhorst and the Bismarck, respectively). The Japanese ship HIJMS Nagato and a few other Japanese ships were also present. The ships most responsible for the Allied victory over Japan, the fleet carriers of the US Navy, remained at sea during the surrender, in effect guaranteeing Japanese compliance.  The single most deserving ship, USS Enterprise, had suffered kamikaze damage late in the war and was off the coast of Washington state.

So, why the Missouri, a ship that had a respectable but not particularly distinguished war record? The quickest answer is that she was the Third Fleet’s flagship and that it made the most sense to have the surrender ceremony on the flagship. Also, President Harry S Truman had a personal connection with the ship. His daughter, Margaret, had christened the hull at its launching, and Truman hailed from Missouri, which is the likely reason for the ship being chosen. It is also worth noting that Missouri had more available deck space than most of the other options.

With the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay as the setting, the Japanese representatives signed the official Instrument of Surrender, prepared by the War Department, and approved by President Truman. It set out in eight short paragraphs the complete capitulation of Japan. The opening words, “We, acting by command of and in behalf of the Emperor of Japan,” signified the importance attached to the Emperor’s role by the Americans who drafted the document. The short second paragraph went straight to the heart of the matter: “We hereby proclaim the unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and of all Japanese armed forces and all armed forces under Japanese control wherever situated.”

The Japanese envoys Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed their names on the Instrument of Surrender. The time was recorded as 4 minutes past 9 o’clock. Afterward, General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in the Southwest Pacific and Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, also signed. He accepted the Japanese surrender “for the United States, Republic of China, United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and in the interests of the other United Nations at war with Japan.”

After the formal surrender, investigations into Japanese war crimes began quickly, and many members of the imperial family pressured Emperor Hirohito to abdicate. However, at a meeting with the Emperor later in September, General MacArthur assured him he needed his help to govern Japan, and so Hirohito was never tried. Legal procedures for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East were issued on January 19, 1946, without any imperial family member being prosecuted. Following the signing of the instrument of surrender, several other surrender ceremonies took place across Japan’s remaining holdings in the Pacific from September 2-12. 

The logistical demands of the surrender were formidable. After Japan’s capitulation, more than 5.4 million Japanese soldiers and 1.8 million Japanese sailors were taken prisoner by the Allies. The damage done to Japan’s infrastructure, combined with a severe famine in 1946, further complicated the Allied efforts to feed the Japanese POWs and civilians. It was not until 1947 that all prisoners held by the United States and Great Britain were repatriated. As late as April 1949, China still held more than 60,000 Japanese prisoners.  

The state of war between most of the Allies and Japan officially ended when the Treaty of San Francisco took effect six and a half years later on April 28, 1952. Japan and the Soviet Union formally made peace four years later, when they signed the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. 

In his speech announcing the signing of the Instrument of Surrender, Truman honored the sacrifices made during the war:

Our first thoughts, of course — thoughts of gratefulness and deep obligation — go out to those of our loved ones who have been killed or maimed in this terrible war. On land and sea and in the air, American men and women have given their lives so that this day of ultimate victory might come and assure the survival of a civilized world. No victory can make good their loss.

We think of those whom death in this war has hurt, taking from them fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, and sisters whom they loved. No victory can bring back the faces they long to see.

Only the knowledge that the victory, which these sacrifices have made possible, will be wisely used can give them any comfort. It is our responsibility – ours, the living – to see to it that this victory shall be a monument worthy of the dead who died to win it.

Indeed, we should never forget the sacrifices of the men and women who died in the Second World War.


Bosom Friends

I don’t often write book reviews on this blog. I used to write them with more frequency years ago, but now I only review one or two books a year at most. However, when I do post a book review, it’s because there is something significant I want to relay to my readers. Such is the case with the following book. I finished reading Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski a few days ago. It is a fascinating account of the perceptions of masculinity in the early 1800s, and how those perceptions have evolved over time. Here is the book’s description from Amazon.com:

The friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama has excited much speculation through the years. Why did neither marry? Might they have been gay? Or was their relationship a nineteenth-century version of the modern-day “bromance”? 

In Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, Thomas J. Balcerski explores the lives of these two politicians and discovers one of the most significant collaborations in American political history. He traces the parallels in the men’s personal and professional lives before elected office, including their failed romantic courtships and the stories they told about them. Unlikely companions from the start, they lived together as congressional messmates in a Washington, DC, boardinghouse and became close confidantes. Around the nation’s capital, the men were mocked for their effeminacy and perhaps their sexuality, and they were likened to Siamese twins. Over time, their intimate friendship blossomed into a significant cross-sectional political partnership. Balcerski examines Buchanan’s and King’s contributions to the Jacksonian political agenda, manifest destiny, and the increasingly divisive debates over slavery, while contesting interpretations that the men lacked political principles and deserved blame for the breakdown of the union. He closely narrates each man’s rise to national prominence, as William Rufus King was elected vice-president in 1852 and James Buchanan the nation’s fifteenth president in 1856, despite the political gossip that circulated about them.

While exploring a same-sex relationship that powerfully shaped national events in the antebellum era, Bosom Friendsdemonstrates that intimate male friendships among politicians were–and continue to be–an important part of success in American politics.

In the American Historical Review, the leading peer reviewed journal for books on American History, Andrew L. Slap, Professor of History at East Tennessee State University, wrote: 

“Balcerski impressively balances the personal and the worldly to produce an original and engaging study both of two men and of the wider antebellum world which they lived in and helped shape….This is certainly the definitive account of the intimate friendship between Buchanan and King. In addition, Balcerski makes important original contributions to our understanding of male friendships and politics in the antebellum United States. This is an excellent first book from a promising young scholar.”

Thomas J. Balcerski is an Associate Professor of History at East Connecticut State University who specializes in Early American History, Manhood and Gender, and U.S. Presidents and First Ladies. Bosom Friends shows his expertise in the study of Manhood and Gender as the book spends a considerable amount of time discussing intimate male friendships in the antebellum period, how those friendships were used by early American politicians, and how such a close friendship could be used against them.  From the outset, Balcerski tells the reader he is not going to make a case for the sexuality of Buchanan or King. Instead, he aims to use the historical record to tell about the “bosom friendship” of these two men. The Cambridge Dictionary describes a bosom friend as a friend that you like a lot and have a very close relationship with; someone you can be very close with and confide everything in. It seems this is what Buchanan and King had for a number of years while they lived in the same boardinghouses.

The two men were so close they were referred to as the Siamese Twins. Political opponents often attacked their manhood and suggested they were romantically involved. But were they? In my opinion, they most likely were not sexual partners. I suspect King may have been romantically invested in Buchanan, but it doesn’t appear Buchanan felt the same way. King was described as handsome and fashionably dressed. Some even compared him to Lord Byron. He was said to have been the epitome of manners, and a perfect example of Southern male chivalry right down to his involvement in several near duels. Buchanan, on the other hand, was always flirting with younger women. Furthermore, Buchanan appeared to hold friendships in high esteem when it would help him politically. His friendship with King seems to have been strongest when King was most powerful politically. When the tables were turned with Buchanan’s appointment as Secretary of State, and King’s appointment as Minister to France, King became Buchanan’s subordinate and their relationship began to deteriorate.

By the mid-1840s and early-1850s, King and Buchanan both vied for the offices of Vice President or President on the Democratic ticket. Instead of their tight friendship, their political ambitions seemed to get in the way. King supported Buchanan’s aspirations to higher office, but when King was nominated for Vice President, Buchanan largely kept silent. King was the first to hold one of the two top elected positions, but he never really served after he was elected. He died just six weeks after being sworn in as Vice President. Buchanan received the 1856 nomination for President, which proved disastrous for the nation as he saw the break-up of the country under his watch.

The book brought up two questions for me: 1) Was there a romantic relationship between King and Buchanan? and 2) What would have happened if King had lived to see the Civil War? The first is left up to the reader to decide, and the second isn’t addressed at all as this is not a “what if” type of book. Unlike some historians of Buchanan, Balcerski keeps to the facts and leaves conjecture to the reader. Little archival information on King still exists. There is one box of King Family Papers at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, but little else except in the Papers of James Buchanan. Both men had nieces who tried to preserve their uncles’ legacies. Buchanan’s niece was far more successful at preserving his documents, but not at rehabilitating his reputation. King’s plantation, Chestnut Hill, just outside of Selma in what was King’s Bend, was burned and ransacked during the Civil War as Union troops advanced through Alabama from Selma to Montgomery. King’s niece wrote to Buchanan’s niece stating there was a box of letters her uncle had received from Buchanan, but they were at the old plantation home. She had recently relocated to Camden, Alabama, and whatever happened to those letters is lost to history. They could have burned or perished in one of the frequent area floods of the plantation. Some have speculated the nieces burned the letters containing the most intimate details, but that is supposition. There is no proof.

The fact is King’s personal life has mostly been lost to history. One thing that remains, Buchanan is the only one of the two who seemed to show any regular interest in a woman. King supposedly fell instantly in love when he met the future Czarina of Russia, Maria Feodorovna. He repeated throughout his life he had loved once but could not love again when retelling the story of the meeting. So, to answer the question whether Buchanan and King were a romantic couple, you’ll have to read the book and decide. It does seem to be the definitive book on the relationship and is free of any bias.

Now comes my own speculation. If King had lived through the Civil War, would he have been chosen as the Confederate President instead of Jefferson Davis? He was certainly the most powerful and influential Southern politician of his time. If he had been chosen, I think it is unlikely he would have moved the capital from Montgomery to Richmond. Could the Confederate capital having a more central location changed the course of the war? Would it have influenced Virginia’s decision to secede? There is no doubt King was pro-slavery, but he was also an ardent unionist. So, would he have had enough influence to calm the tempers of the day? With his intimate friend Buchanan as President, could he have even helped prevent the war? One thing is certain, had King lived through the Civil War, he would have been at the heart of the secession crisis. The question is, what side would he have been on and what role would he have played?

If you have an interest in American political history in the years preceding the Civil War, I think you would enjoy this book. Also, if you want a better understanding of early American male bonding and masculinity, you will also enjoy this book. There are still questions about King and Buchanan, but those questions are ultimately unanswerable due to the lack of historical resources. We have no idea what went on in the bedrooms of these two politicians, but I suspect it is unlikely anything happened as they always lived with other people in their various boardinghouses. My ultimate suggestion, then, is to just read the book and enjoy it.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: the land where King’s plantation, Chestnut Hill, once occupied is now owned by Buchanan Lumber Mobile Inc. of Mobile, Alabama.

For short biographies of the two men, click “Continue reading” to see the rest of the post.

Continue reading


An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

Warning: This is a long poem, but one of the most famous of the eighteenth century. The importance of this poem and the reason for choosing it is in the comments below.

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard

By Thomas Gray

The Curfeu tolls the Knell of parting Day,
The lowing Herd wind slowly o’er the Lea,
The Plow-man homeward plods his weary Way,
And leaves the World to Darkness, and to me.

Now fades the glimmering Landscape on the Sight,
And all the Air a solemn Stillness holds;
Save where the Beetle wheels his droning Flight,
And drowsy Tinklings lull the distant Folds.

Save that from yonder Ivy-mantled Tow’r
The mopeing Owl does to the Moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her sacred Bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary Reign.

Beneath those rugged Elms, that Yew-Tree’s Shade,
Where heaves the Turf in many a mould’ring Heap,
Each in his narrow Cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the Hamlet sleep.

The breezy Call of Incense-breathing Morn,
The Swallow twitt’ring from the Straw-built Shed,
The Cock’s shrill Clarion, or the echoing Horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly Bed.

For them no more the blazing Hearth shall burn,
Or busy Houswife ply her Evening Care:
No Children run to lisp their Sire’s Return,
Or climb his Knees the envied Kiss to share.

Oft did the Harvest to their Sickle yield,
Their Furrow oft the stubborn Glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their Team afield!
How bow’d the Woods beneath their sturdy Stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful Toil,
Their homely Joys, and Destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful Smile,
The short and simple Annals of the Poor.

The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Pow’r,
And all that Beauty, all that Wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable Hour.
The Paths of Glory lead but to the Grave.

Forgive, ye proud, th’ involuntary Fault,
If Memory to these no Trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn Isle and fretted Vault
The pealing Anthem swells the Note of Praise.

Can storied Urn or animated Bust
Back to its Mansion call the fleeting Breath?
Can Honour’s Voice provoke the silent Dust,
Or Flatt’ry sooth the dull cold Ear of Death!

Perhaps in this neglected Spot is laid
Some Heart once pregnant with celestial Fire,
Hands that the rod of Empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to Extacy the living Lyre.

But Knowledge to their Eyes her ample Page
Rich with the Spoils of Time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble Rage,
And froze the genial Current of the Soul.

Full many a Gem of purest Ray serene
The dark unfathom’d Caves of Ocean bear:
Full many a Flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its Sweetness on the desart Air.

Some Village-Hampden, that with dauntless Breast
The little Tyrant of his Fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his Country’s Blood.

Th’ Applause of list’ning Senates to command,
The Threats of Pain and Ruin to despise,
To scatter Plenty o’er a smiling Land,
And read their Hist’ry in a Nation’s Eyes,

Their Lot forbad: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing Virtues, but their Crimes confin’d;
Forbad to wade through Slaughter to a Throne,
And shut the Gates of Mercy on Mankind;

The struggling Pangs of conscious Truth to hide,
To quench the Blushes of ingenuous Shame,
Or heap the Shrine of Luxury and Pride
With Incense, kindled at the Muse’s Flame.

Far from the madding Crowd’s ignoble Strife,
Their sober Wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d Vale of Life
They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way.

Yet ev’n these Bones from Insult to protect
Some frail Memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth Rhimes and shapeless Sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing Tribute of a Sigh.

Their Name, their Years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse,
The Place of fame and Elegy supply:
And many a holy Text around she strews,
That teach the rustic Moralist to die.

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious Being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm Precincts of the chearful Day,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind!

On some fond Breast the parting Soul relies,
Some pious Drops the closing Eye requires;
Even from the Tomb the Voice of Nature cries
Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead,
Dost in these lines their artless Tale relate;
If chance, by lonely Contemplation led,
Some hidden Spirit shall inquire thy Fate,

Haply some hoary-headed Swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the Peep of Dawn
Brushing with hasty Steps the Dews away
To meet the Sun upon the upland Lawn.

“There at the Foot of yonder nodding Beech
That wreathes its old fantastic Roots so high,
His listless Length at Noontide wou’d he stretch,
And pore upon the Brook that babbles by.

“Hard by yon Wood, now smiling as in Scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward Fancies he wou’d rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with Care, or cross’d in hopeless Love.

“One Morn I miss’d him on the custom’d Hill,
Along the Heath and near his fav’rite Tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the Rill,
Nor up the Lawn, nor at the Wood was he.

“The next with Dirges due in sad Array,
Slow thro’ the Church-way Path we saw him born.
Approach and read (for thou can’st read) the Lay,
Grav’d on the Stone, beneath yon aged Thorn.”

THE EPITAPH.
Here rests his Head upon the Lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown:
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble Birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

Large was his Bounty, and his Soul sincere,
Heav’n did a Recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a Tear:
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a Friend.

No farther seek his Merits to disclose,
Or draw his Frailties from their dread Abode,
(There they alike in trembling Hope repose)
The Bosom of his Father and his God.

About the Poem

Thomas Gray’s famous poem “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard” was written in 1750. The poem was composed at a time of change within English poetry when poets were trying to move away from the influence of John Milton and Edmund Spenser. While Gray avoids obvious imitation, there is no mistaking the Spenserian tone of a sober melancholy. The Elegy became the single most popular eighteenth-century poem, endlessly reprinted and eventually memorized by millions of schoolchildren. 

The poem’s origins are unknown, but it is believed to have been partly inspired by Gray’s thoughts following the death of the poet Richard West in 1742. Gray wrote a number of poems to West, expressing his love and his increasing agony over his sexuality. Both men were homosexual in a time when being a “sodomite” carried a possible death sentence if convicted. Critics have said that the depressive quality of the Elegy, which oddly makes it so pleasant to many readers, stems not merely from Gray’s specific grief at the loss of West (the “friend” of the epitaph) some fifteen years earlier, but also from the ongoing suppression of his homosexual identity. The nature of the speaker’s “sensibility” has come under renewed scrutiny, as several critics have argued that the term was virtually code for “homosexuality” at this time, and that the Elegy’s speaker finds in the unrealized potential of the dead a parallel for his own homosexual desires.

I chose this poem today because I have been reading Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King by Thomas J. Balcerski. The book looks at the friendship of the bachelor politicians James Buchanan (1791-1868) of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King (1786-1853) of Alabama which has excited much speculation through the years. Why did neither marry? Were they gay? Or was their relationship a very intimate, but not a romantic friendship. I am only about a third of the way through the book, but the life of King definitely seems suspicious.

King was one of the founders of Selma, Alabama, the state’s first U.S. Senator, and Vice President of the United States in 1853, a position he held for only 45 days. He is the only Vice President to take the oath of office outside of the United States and to never serve as Vice President in Washington. King was ill with tuberculosis and had traveled to Cuba in an effort to regain his health. Because of this, he was unable to make it back to Washington for the inauguration. Shortly after taking the oath of office, he returned to his home near Selma, where he died before returning to Washington to assume the vice presidency.

Like the poet Thomas Gray, King never married. Neither even seems to have formed any meaningful attachments to women. King always said that he had loved but once and could never love again. The story goes that in 1816, he became the Secretary of the Legation for William Pinkney during Pinkney’s appointment as Minister to Russia and special diplomatic mission in Naples. While at the Court of St. Petersburg, King claimed that when he set his eyes on the future Czarina Maria Feodorovna, he instantly fell in love and almost committed a diplomatic faux pas when, as the King family tradition has it, he passionately kissed the hand of the future czarina, a risky move that could have landed him in serious jeopardy. This instance is the only time he admitted to having any romantic feelings for a woman, and it occurred halfway around the world where no one could confirm or deny the story. He would often relate this story when his bachelorhood was questioned.

King and Buchanan lived together for a number of years but separated when King became the U.S. Minister to France. King wrote Buchanan from Paris: “I am selfish enough to hope you will not be able to procure an associate who will cause you to feel no regret at our separation. For myself, I shall feel lonely in the midst of Paris, for here I shall have no Friend with whom I shall commune as with my own thoughts.”

Around the same time, Buchanan wrote a letter to a friend complaining about being alone and not being able to find the right gentleman partner:

“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

While Buchanan at times did try to find a wife, it appears that King never did. King was known to be one of the most fashionable and handsome men in Washington. He was also known to be very fastidious in his appearance. King was a lover of literature and often quoted poetry in his letters. In one such letter, he quoted the poem above. Being well versed in literature, King was likely to have known the same-sex desires alluded to in Gray’s “An Elegy Wrote in a Country Churchyard.” Rumors have circulated for nearly two hundred years that William Rufus King was gay, and I suspect there is some truth to the rumors. Buchanan on the other hand may have been bisexual, or he simply pursued women to further his political aspirations. However, both men were politicians in a Washington that had few women and bachelorhood was seen as an advantage because a man did not have a family to worry about at home. It was not until Andrew Jackson’s presidency that women began to come with their husbands to Washington and create an exclusive social atmosphere for the women of Washington’s political elite, an event that took many years to come to fruition.

Whether King and Buchanan were lovers or merely very intimate friends, they certainly turned heads at the time and fostered a great deal of speculation. Much of their letters to one another were destroyed by family members; however, the length and intimacy of the surviving letters illustrate the affection of a special friendship between King and Buchanan, with no way to know for certain whether it was a romantic relationship.


Etty Hillesum

“If there is ever to be peace, it won’t be authentic until each individual achieves peace within [them]self, expels all feelings of hatred for a race or group of people, or better, can dominate hatred and change it into something else, maybe even into love- or is that asking too much? It’s the only solution.”

– Etty Hillesum

I came across this post in my daily email from Queer Theology. I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Etty Hillesum, who was a diarist and Holocaust victim. There is probably a reason for that. Her diaries are not of a young girl like those of Anne Frank, but a woman who was open about her sexuality. In one of her writings she wrote, “I am accomplished in bed.” Hillesum journaled for two years and three months. In her first entry, she boasted of being, “just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers.” She was then sleeping with the man she was living with, Han Wegerif, a widower of 62. Soon, Etty would be sleeping with her therapist, Julius Spear. When it came to sexual freedom, Etty was a woman ahead of her time. But besides being a sexually free woman of the 1940s, who was Etty Hillesum?

Etty Hillesum was born on 15 January 1914 in Middelburg, Netherlands. After leaving school in 1932, she went to Amsterdam to study law. She also studied Slavic languages in both Amsterdam and Leiden. She greatly enjoyed student life moving several times within Amsterdam before settling down in an apartment on the Gabriël Metsustraat in 1937 which she shared with Wegerif. She lived in that apartment until her final departure for Westerbork (a Dutch camp that served as a staging ground for the deportation of Jews) in June 1943, and it was there in the Gabriël Metsustraat that she wrote her diaries.

At Westerbork, Etty was assigned to the registration of arrivals and acted as a social worker, psychologist, and spiritual counselor. The survivors of that period testified to her radiant personality and her great dedication. “One would like to be a balm poured on so many wounds.” She devoted herself to others and bore the daily brunt of the stress in the camp such as the deportation of a part of its population every weekend. She finally fell ill, but thanks to her status, was allowed to go back to Amsterdam to be treated. Despite such pressure, Etty nevertheless remained determined to write, and she kept up her journaling. 

On June 5, 1943, when friends offered to help her hide, she chose instead to return to Westerbork and stay there to continue her work. She also had the opportunity to help her parents and her brother Misha who had been the victims of the great roundup of June 20-21, 1943. An unfortunate letter written by Etty’s mother to H.A. Rauter, the Commanding Officer of the police and the SS in the Netherlands, exasperated him and caused the entire Hillesum family to be deported. On September 7, 1943, they were sent to Auschwitz with 986 other Jews. According to the Red Cross, Etty was thought to have died there on November 30, 1943.

What survives her is a diary covering the last three years of her life. In Etty’s diary we discover her as she really was, day by day, and this presence which we perceive in her writing moves us much more than a biography written by someone else. A few letters also remain. They were published in 1982, and give us a deeply moving picture of Westerbork: “the home of Jewish suffering” stuck in the mud and barbed wire where Etty depicts men, women, children, old people who have nothing left except “the thin cover of their humanity.” The end of her diary written in Westerbork unfortunately disappeared with her at Auschwitz.

The quote above shows her feelings about humanity. With protests, divisive politics, and an emerging police state surrounding us every day, we need to take her words to heart. We can honor her legacy by expelling those feelings of hatred we may have and achieve peace. We can turn our negative feelings to love and create a better world. I think Etty makes a very good point. It is something we should strive for in our lives.


Homophobic Language: Part II

When I wrote last Friday’s post on homophobic language I said, “The words gay (used in a demeaning fashion), fag, sissy, fairy, queer, faggot can do psychological damage to a young person especially when used in a degrading way.” Roderick, a reader of this blog, and always such a sweet darling, asked, “Joe, interesting that you don’t even mention the term “queer.” Is it or is it not homophobic?” I pointed out that I had mentioned it; however, it was a brief comment. So, I thought perhaps I should do another post on derogatory gay euphemisms. They have been used in movies, by politicians, religious leaders, and everyday people. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Below are some terms I feel are important to address.

The first term is gay when used in a demeaning fashion. It is interesting how that word came to mean homosexual. It appears to have its origins around the 12th century in England derived from the Old French word ‘gai’, which in turn was probably derived from a Germanic word though that isn’t completely known.  The word’s original meaning meant something “joyful”, “carefree”, “full of mirth”, or “bright and showy.” However, around the early part of the 17th century, the word began to be associated with immorality. Fast-forward to the 19th century, and the word referred to a woman who was a prostitute or a gay man who slept with a lot of women (ironically enough) often prostitutes. 

However, in the 1920s and 1930s, the word’s meaning began to change. In its sexual definition, a gay man no longer meant a man who had sex with a lot of women, but now referred to men who had sex with other men. By 1955, the word officially acquired the added definition of homosexual male. The 1938 movie, Bringing Up Baby, was the first film to use the word gay to mean homosexual.  In one scene, Cary Grant ends up having to wear a lady’s feathery robe. When another character asks why he is wearing that he responds with an ad-libbed line, “Because I just went gay.”  At the time, mainstream audiences didn’t get the reference, so the line was popularly thought to have meant, “I just decided to be carefree.” Whether Grant meant gay as in homosexual or gay as in carefree is up for debate, but rumors about Grant’s sexuality have always been around especially when it pertained to his relationship with Randolph Scott.

Queer is a word particularly traumatic for me. I don’t like hearing it, and I don’t use it. Some people classify queer as a sexuality different from gay especially in the term genderqueer another word for non-binary. Merriam-Webster defines “queer” as a “sometimes disparaging & offensive” term for same-sex attraction. Some LGBTQ+ activists began to reclaim the word as a deliberately provocative and politically radical alternative to the more assimilationist branches of the LGBTQ+ community. Even with that usage, I still find it offensive because of personal experiences. As I said in Friday’s post, “When the gay community normalizes these words, they don’t know the traumatic affect it can have on someone younger.” When it comes to the word queer, I find it homophobic, and it causes a great deal of discomfort. However, others in the LGBTQ+ community don’t see it that way as long as it’s within the LGBTQ+ community or in academic usage such as queer studies. I guess it is up to which side of the fence you fall. 

My daddy always told me not to be a sissy. I hate the word. I think we all know this, but it deserves repeating: sissy (derived from sister), also sissy baby, sissy boy, sissy man, sissy pants, etc., is a pejorative term for a boy or man who is not traditionally masculine and shows possible signs of fragility. Sissy implies a lack of courage, strength, athleticism, coordination, testosterone, male libido, and stoic calm all of which have traditionally been associated with masculinity and considered important to the male role in Western society. A man might also be considered a sissy for being interested in traditionally feminine hobbies or employment (e.g., fashion), displaying effeminate behavior (e.g., using hair products, displaying limp wrists), being unathletic, being homosexual. By the 1930s, the most damning insult was to be called a sissy; the word was widely used by American football coaches and sports writers to disparage rival teams, and to encourage ferocious player behavior. Good students were taunted as sissies, and clothing styles associated with higher social classes were demeaned as sissified. 

Fairy denotes not only homosexuality but effeminacy. It has been used when speaking of gay men for over 100 years. One example of its use was from the Roaring Twenties. On a Friday night in February 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for the 58th Masquerade and Civil ball of Hamilton Lodge. The New York Age reported nearly half of those attending appeared to be “men of the class generally known as ‘fairies,’ and many Bohemians from the Greenwich Village section who [….] in their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs, and powdered faces were hard to distinguish from many of the women.” For the most part, fairy has been stripped of its power by the Radical Faerie movement and new-era queers. On a side note, Faerie Camp Destiny, the Radical Faerie sanctuary in New England, began in the town where I currently live though it has since moved. (It is now in southern Vermont.) Radical Faeries have always been a special group in the gay hippie sanctuary of Vermont.

While growing up, I heard other phrases from my mother.  She would describe gay men as having “sugar in their shorts,” that they were “light in the loafers,” or the ever-popular “queer as a $3 bill.” Because of my mother’s derisive use of these phrases, I particularly hate them. Though I don’t remember my mother using it, “limp-wristed” was another common phrase. Holding your hand up and flipping your wrist down so it looks limp has been a code I’ve known for most of my life to mean gay. Southerners have always enjoyed using colorful language to disparage people. Sodomite was well-known in the South during the 19th century. Though it is the place where LGBTQ+ people have the least rights and respect, a Williams Institute study looking at LGBTQ+ demographics across the United States found that the South had the largest LGBTQ+ population of all other regions in America. With an LGBTQ+ population of 3,868,000, the South surpassed every other region in its makeup of the 11,343,000 Americans—roughly 4.5 percent – that “identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.” Eventually, the South will have to wake up and start treating their own people better.

Before ‘’gay’’ became common and accepted parlance, the world had many other unofficial names for men who liked men. Some names were self-created by the gay community, and others were thrust, often cruelly, upon gay, bi, and queer men. Following are a few terms used in the past some of which are thankfully becoming obsolete while others are being reclaimed by the gay community. Mary is a mostly innocuous term from the middle 20th century used among gay and bi men. It was first mentioned in the early 1900s and has been reclaimed by the gay community. An example is Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grille, a gay-themed and LGBT-friendly burger restaurant chain started in San Francisco in 1972. The eateries are often in gay neighborhoods and are intended to represent stereotypical gay culture through humorously named menu items, flamboyant décor with many of their locations hosting drag shows on weekends.

Nancy boy is based on a vaudeville term. The ‘nance,’ was a gay burlesque character from the 1930s who created laughs as he pranced about the stage creating campy scenes and sketches of gay life. The ‘nance’ character put on an outrageous show and was popular with audiences. In the late 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, fearful of how the lurid burlesque shows would make his city look in the upcoming World’s Fair of 1939, cracked down on burlesque houses. Part of LaGuardia’s anger was aimed at the ‘nance’ whom critics said created audiences of lusty gay men having sex in the dark balconies of the burlesque emporiums. It was an outrage, the Mayor said, and police began swooping down on burlesque shows closing many and forcing others to drop the ‘nance’ act or greatly curb it. The term has always been used to mock gay men and today is still used in a derogatory fashion.

Flowers have a long association with the LGBTQ community. The American “Pansy Craze” of almost 100 years ago cemented the use of that flower’s name as a slang term for gay men. During the Pansy Craze of 1930–1933, drag queens, known as “pansy performers”, experienced a surge in underground popularity especially in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Oscar Wilde earlier turned the green carnation into a symbol for gay men in England by wearing one in his lapel. Violets were associated with Sappho herself, and the calamuswith Walt Whitman. A pre-Stonewall gay bar at the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street was called The Flower Pot. While we don’t know whether “lavender” refers to the color or the herb, either way, the word seems to have been used in connection with gay men since the 1920s. It’s now used interchangeably with “rainbow” to mean “LGBTQ+” at events like Lavender Graduations, and the annual Lavender Law Conference of the LGBT Bar Association.

While we are on the subject of plants, a “fruit” is another euphemism for a gay man. I don’t think “fruit” has been reclaimed. It still gets under my skin. It’s a word used to laugh at us. When I first came out in graduate school, one of my professors walked up to me at a bar gathering of the History Department and drunkenly said, “Congratulations, I hear you are a fruit.” I was horrified. It was an inappropriate thing to say to a student. He was a very rude man from Canada, a historian of Latin America. Canadians don’t tend to be so rude at least I’ve never found them to be. However, it’s what I’d expect from a Latin America historian. Sorry if you are one, hopefully this doesn’t pertain to you, but I have always found them not to be the nicest of people. When it comes to historians, we all have our own quirks associated with our disciplines; medievalist are always a strange bunch of people, military historians tend to be rivet counters (obsessing on minutiae of their particular interest, especially military and technology history), oral historians tend to be the most liberal and social justice-minded. I could go on, but I will likely offend someone if I haven’t already. Besides, I’m off topic.

I know this list is only the tip of the iceberg. I stayed with American euphemisms and derogatory terms. I did not delve into words and phrases for the rest of the LGBTQ+ spectrum.  Lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, non-binary, etc., have derogatory terms directed at them. I also didn’t discuss the more subtle and not so subtle terms used in politics for gay-baiting such as fussy, hysterical, San Francisco, wine drinker, lifestyle, etc. Then there is the rest of the world who have their own terms; the list goes on and on and on. While terms are being reclaimed by some in the LGBTQ+ community, I cannot stress this enough: many of them will continue to be hurtful to other members of the community. Childhood and family trauma live with a person their entire lives. It is forever. When you grow up hearing words and phrases used derogatorily and directed at yourself, it is almost impossible to reclaim them and use them for your own empowerment. 


It Started 55 Years Ago… 📚 🏳️‍🌈

On July 4, 1965—four years before Stonewall—39 activists from D.C., New York, and Philadelphia marched on the place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed roughly two centuries earlier. They wanted to remind the nation that their rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had been denied. Dressed in formal attire—the men in coats and ties, and many of the women in skirts and dresses—they carried signs that read Equal Treatment Before the Law and Homosexual Bill of Rights.

For the next four years, the organizer of that protest, Craig Rodwell, along with his comrades, Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen, marched in Philadelphia. Their demonstrations became known as “the Annual Reminders.” But in the summer of 1967, Rodwell also decided to do something that was, in its own quiet way, more radical than marching. He wanted to open a bookstore. Rodwell was the vice president of the Mattachine Society, a gay male political group. He wanted to make the Society more accessible to people, instead of just sitting in an office. He wanted the Society to set up a combination bookstore, counseling service, fund-raising headquarters, and office. When the Mattachine Society rejected Rodwell’s plans to open a bookstore, he resigned from the group and decided to do it alone.

The Stonewall protests two years later would draw broad attention to the struggle for gay liberation, but that struggle did not start in 1969. There were protests, and thriving gay communities, before that night in New York City—and Stonewall’s success was rooted in those earlier efforts. Activists like Rodwell understood the value of visibility; he was among the architects of New York’s gay-pride parade. But some were struggling not just for rights or liberation, but for something still more revolutionary. They were fighting for what they called “gay power,” the authority to define their own identity. Their efforts produced the intellectual revolution that lent the Stonewall protests their power, and which helped ensure that long after the protests were over, the changes they wrought would endure. The victories of Stonewall, then, had the unlikeliest of birthplaces: the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

In 1967, there were no gay community centers, save San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights, that offered cultural programming and recreational activities. There were no gay bookstores that included shelves of gay books. In fact, there was no such thing as serious gay nonfiction. Libraries had systematically cataloged homosexuality as a deviance or a disorder. There were the occasional novels—notably, The Well of Loneliness, published by Radclyffe Hall in the United Kingdom in 1928—but mostly there was pulp fiction and porn, and novels that had queer subtexts. In 1870, Bayard Taylor had published Joseph and His Friend: A Story in Pennsylvania, widely considered to be the first American gay novel. Joseph and His Friend was the story of a newly engaged young man who finds himself instead falling in love with another man. The book was not well received. Then there is Bertram Cope’s Year, a 1919 novel by Henry Blake Fuller, which is sometimes also called the first American gay novel, but it was never widely circulated, and the gay theme was never fully specified. Gay novels have always had a specific but not large audience. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, gay literature was very hard to find in bookstores. It was even worse in the decades before I was born.

Therefore, Rodwell wanted a bookstore that would provide LGBTQ people with intellectual engagement as well as books on homosexuality. He also wanted the store to offer psychological-counseling services because, in 1967, the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its diagnostic and statistical manual. For many queer people in the 1960s, the search for books, which offered some clues about homosexuality, was how they navigated their way out of the closet. When I first wanted to find out what it meant to be gay and was trying to understand my sexuality, the internet wasn’t widely available, and books were the only place to turn. When I was in college, Books-A-Million and their mall store Bookland had few if any gay books. Luckily, Montgomery had a Barnes and Noble back then, and the store did have a small gay literature section. It was worse in the 1960s. Those who went looking for gay books typically came up empty-handed. 

Rodwell boarded a bus and headed to Fire Island, a Long Island beach town that had become a gay hub, with the hope that he could earn enough money working as a bartender to open the store. Three months later, he arrived back in New York City. He found a storefront in the Village with a rent of $115 a month. He had to come up with the first month’s rent plus two month’s security. That amount came to $345, which was one third of what he’d earned tending bar. So, he paid the rent and security deposit and opened the first-ever gay bookstore in the world at 291 Mercer Street, between Waverly Place and East Eighth Street. In 1973, Rodwell moved the store to 15 Christopher Street. He kept the Mercer Street store open for several months, for “sentimental reasons,” but finally closed it in May 1974.

He wanted a name that would tell people what the shop was about, so he tried to thin of the most prominent person whose name I could use who is most readily identifiable as a homosexual by most people. Oscar Wilde seemed the most obvious at the time, so he called it the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

Rodwell planned the official opening for a few months later, on November 24, 1967. His mother arrived from Chicago the day before and they stayed up all night setting up the store. His plan to offer counseling services never came to fruition, but the store itself proved unexpectedly radical. The few identifiably queer books that could then be found in libraries—by Hall or Wilde or any other queer writers—were scattered by differences in genre, nationality, and date of publication. As Rodwell and his mother placed books by queer authors on the same shelf, they redefined the meaning of homosexuality. It was no longer simply a deviance or a disorder. It was, instead, a coherent category—with shelves of books to prove it.

The bookshop was immediately popular within the gay community. The store was packed, especially on Saturday afternoons, when Rodwell served free coffee and pastries. News of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop traveled around the country, and around the world. Gay readers wrote to Rodwell, asking for book suggestions and praising him for making LGBTQ novels, newspapers, and pamphlets available. Young men wrote, asking for advice on how to come out. European tourists told their friends, who made it a point to visit the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on their trips to New York. American soldiers stationed in Vietnam ordered books and asked for magazine subscriptions to The New York Hymnal, a journal Rodwell founded and edited. A handful of Americans and Europeans wrote to Rodwell asking for help on how to establish their own stores, which led, for example, to the creation of Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia. (The store title was taken from the title of James Baldwin’s 1956 homoerotic novel, which was the first gay book I ever bought and read.) The bookshop had not only become a major touchstone for New Yorkers but also symbolized the promise of gay liberation to many others throughout the world.

On June 28, 1969, Rodwell was walking home from a bridge game with a friend when he heard noise coming from the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that had been owned by the Mafia and frequently raided by the police. At first, he ignored it, but then he noticed that a crowd had formed around the police wagon; people were resisting being handcuffed by the police. Rodwell climbed onto the steps of the highest stoop and yelled, “Gay power!” and “Christopher Street belongs to the queens!” 

While Rodwell and others defined homosexuality on their own terms, refusing to allow those in positions of authority to be the sole authors of their identity, the revolution was not over. Discrimination continued. Decades of activism lay ahead. The Stonewall uprising amplified the work that Rodwell and others had been doing before 1969. And it was those networks of activists, and the intellectual revolution they set in motion—reclaiming and defining their own identity—that transformed Stonewall from an isolated event into a turning point in the struggle for gay liberation. The protests themselves eventually ended, but the books and articles these activists published endure, and continue to inspire new generations. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop closed on March 29, 2009 citing the Great Recession and challenges from online bookstores.

This post was adapted from an article in The Atlantic by Jim Downs, a history professor at Connecticut College.


For Your Boy

“For Your Boy” by Arthur William Brown

For the past month, I’ve been taking an online professional development course designed to teach museum educators, like myself, how to develop and write formal lesson plans for K-12 teachers. It’s been a pretty interesting class; our end project is to write a lesson plan for our museum. I chose to write about our vast collection of World War I propaganda posters. Most lesson plans are no more than 5-10 pages; mine currently is 36, and I still need to add in the curriculum standards for Vermont. While I did get a bit carried away, my teacher said the lesson plan did not contain anything that wasn’t needed. In fact, what takes up the most pages are the posters themselves as well as background information on the artists and posters. I also compiled a list of early propaganda techniques. Tweets and accusations of “fake news” may be everyday politics for Trump, but in April 1917, the U.S. government had to create an entire committee to influence media and shape popular opinion; and for the most part, they used propaganda for the good of the country.

When I look at the various propaganda techniques, I see correlations to the tactics of the current administration. The only difference is propaganda is usually based on at least some shred of evidence or a grain of truth. What that man in the White House says and disseminates has no grain of truth; it’s just lies. He doesn’t even attempt half-truths, and when he does tell the “truth” such as in his Tulsa speech when he said he ordered a slowdown in COVID-19 testing because it was revealing too many positive cases, the truth is worse than fiction.

For this assignment, I’ve been doing a lot of research on types of propaganda, and it’s easier to come up with ways Trump uses it than ways it was used in WWI. To give you some examples: Name Calling (Sleepy Joe), Transfer (I’m a very stable genius), Plain Folks (calling Neo- Nazi’s “very fine people”), Weak Inference (referring to Putin’s claim of not interfering in the 2016 election, “I believe he believes it”), Stereotyping (Kung-Flu), Guilt-by-Association (Liberal Media=Fake News), Bandwagon (“I’m a winner. I beat people. I’m ahead in the polls and there’s no end in sight.”), Faulty Analogy (“All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here—a lynching. But we will WIN!”), Glittering Generalities (Make America Great Again), Virtue-by-Association (Trump’s claiming he’s a Christian), Patriotic Symbols (How he abhors protestors who kneel for the National Anthem), Testimonials (Trump’s new slogan “Transition to Greatness”), Distortion of Data (Do I even have to give examples of his more than 19,000 lies?), Emotional Appeal (the way he demonizes immigrants, protestors, Democrats, etc.). The list goes on and on and on ad nauseam.

It’s difficult to understand why people blindly follow Trump. It can’t be only about being pro-life. Which brings me to the main point of my post: I’ve been a bit down since Sunday night. I got into an argument with my mother about her support of Trump. She made me so upset, I ended the call by telling her, “Bye,” and hanging up the phone. I just could not take any more of her parroting Fox News drivel. I told her she had disappointed me by supporting a bully like a Trump, that I’d dealt with bullies all my life—which she knows—and I didn’t want one in the White House. I don’t want an amoral person as president who goes against everything I was raised to believe in. I was literally shaking when I got off the phone. What upsets me the most: she didn’t seem to care that I was upset.

I read an article in The Washington Post the other day that talked about how many public health officials were being harassed and threatened. People were publishing their emails, home addresses, and phone numbers so others could harass them from around the country. I thought of my mother who spent 25 years as a nurse at the county health department. If she were still working, she’d be one of the people enforcing rules to mitigate the spread of the virus. I wonder if my family—my mother specifically—could have faced the hatred and retribution of Trump supporters who care more about money and their “freedom” than they care about the safety of others. I wonder if she were still at the health department would she have felt differently about an administration that has downplayed the deadliness of this disease and politicized a public health crisis for their own political gain. 

Mama was always a particularly good and caring nurse; I don’t understand what has happened to her. She wasn’t like this when I was growing up or at least, I never saw it so blatantly. I can’t help but take some of the blame for her change of heart. Since she found out I am gay, she has become more of a fundamental evangelical Christian and a diehard Republican who sees no good in anyone who doesn’t think like Fox News tells them to think. She has closed her mind to so much of the world, and I wonder if this is all because she has a gay son. She has never been able to accept my sexuality. As she becomes more and more in line with conservative Republican ideology, the less I want to talk to her. I am getting to the point where I no longer care what she thinks of me. I have held off finding someone to spend my life with because I knew she’d never accept him. Now, I fear I’ve wasted my life hoping for my mother’s love and acceptance when that hope can never be fully realized.

I do love my mother, and in some strange, twisted, and warp-minded way, I know she holds some love for me. But I don’t know if I can continue to live my life this way. I live 1,100 miles away from my parents. Perhaps it is time to become who I really am, and to quit holding back because of the fear of what my parents and family might think of me.