The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Susan Sontag

Am in the midst of reading—no, devouring—Reborn, the first volume of Susan Sontag’s diary. What’s unexpected is how devastatingly charming it is. Her earnestness as a child, her intermittent goofiness as a young adult. Her passion throughout. Sontag at age 14:

I believe, furthermore, that an ideal state . . . should be a strong centralized one with goverment control of public utilities, banks, mines, + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and aged. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.

At 16:

With my new eyes I re-survey the life around me. Most particularly I become frightened to realize how close I came to letting myself slide into the academic life. It would have been effortless . . . just keep on making good grades . . . and, at the age of sixty, be ugly and respected and a full professor. Why, I was looking through the English Dept. publications in the library today—long (hundreds of pages) monographs on such subjects as: The Use of “Tu” and “Vous” in Voltaire; the Social Criticism of Fenimore Cooper; A Bibliography of the Writings of Bret Harted in the Magazines + Newspapers of California (1859–1891) . . .

Jesus Christ! What did I almost submit to?!?

At 23:

Tonight David [i.e., David Rieff, her son and the diary’s editor, at the time three years old]—on the dressing table in the bathroom, being prepared for bed by Rose—said: “How do people have two husbands? When one dies?” I answered: “That’s right. If one dies, you can marry again if you want.” To which he answered: “Well then, when Daddy dies I’ll marry you.” I was so startled + delighted that I could only reply: “That’s the nicest thing you ever said to me, David.”

He seemed quite calm, but I was almost in tears . . .

At 25:

Tonight (last night!) at Paul’s place I reely wuz speeking French. For owers ‘n ‘owers, with him and his very sweet parents. What great fun!!

. . . and . . .

I am scared, numbed from the marital wars—that deadly, deadening combat which is the opposite, the antithesis of the sharp painful struggles of lovers. Lovers fight with knives and whips, husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills, and wet blankets.

It’s a novel, but better, because it’s all real. She knows herself; she doesn’t know herself. She figures it out; she forgets what she has figured out. All the intellect, all the striving, which seemed so fearful and offputting while Sontag was alive, are now revealed as no more than weapons that she took up because she had to, in order to live as she wanted to live, that is, as an intellectual in a world that did not respect homosexual women. With honesty, which neither her mother nor her husband nor even her lovers commend in her, she takes hold of that Proteus her self and simply keeps her hold on it, until its cascades of change slow and at last it reveals its nature to her. It seems to have been stipulated in the terms of her success that she could never write its story except privately. This is the novel she was willing to give up criticism to write. The trick of it is that in her journal she had already written it.

Later. I’ve finished. I’m bereft. I can’t believe I have to wait another year to read the next volume. I think the following was in the New York Times Magazine excerpt from the diaries a couple of years ago, but it’s still amazing:

My need desire to write is connected with my homosexuality. I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.

It doesn’t justify my homosexuality. But it would give me—I feel—a license.

And this, I think, I could have written in my own journal last week:

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

In Sontag’s honor, I will try to be a little more monstrous.

Notebook: Aimee Semple McPherson

Sinclair, Oil!

“The Miracle Woman,” my review of Matthew Avery Sutton’s biography Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America appears in the 19 July 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books. (It’s not available for free online. Please subscribe! Otherwise someday there will be no more steamboats…) What follows is supplemental, and not likely to make sense until you read the article.

As ever, my first thanks are owed to the book under review. A couple of other sources made it into the article’s footnotes: Edith L. Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Eerdmans, 1993) and Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (Harcourt, 1993). Since I didn’t have room in my article to give much sense of these books as books, it may be worth saying here that their styles are quite different: prose-poetical and trusting in Epstein’s case, authoritative and reserved in Blumhofer’s. Sutton praises both of them in his book, and writes that he hurried past McPherson’s youth because they covered it so well, choosing instead to focus on her later years, which they scanted. That’s true of Blumhofer, whose tact constrains her to a cryptic brevity when she reaches the bickering and scandal of McPherson’s last decade. Epstein, though, provides a few more of the late twists and turns than Sutton does, and may in the end give the most complete picture. (Unfortunately, he’s not always perfectly accurate. For example, he writes that McPherson failed to attend her father’s funeral in 1927, but he is contradicted by the obituary he quotes, which states that her father died at eighty-five, his age in 1921. Indeed, Blumhofer reports that McPherson’s father died in 1921, and has evidence, furthermore, that Aimee did return to her hometown for the service.) The other important biography of McPherson is Lately Thomas’s Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (Morrow, 1970), which traces McPherson’s path through the pages of American newspapers in great detail; on the subject of McPherson, Thomas notes, the “press record is almost inexhaustible.” The result is somewhat unfiltered and “bitty,” as the English say, but the newspaper photographs that illustrate the book alone make it worthwhile.

In 1999, a University of Virginia undergraduate named Anna Robertson put together a slide show of McPherson photographs, an Aimee Semple McPherson cut-out doll published by Vanity Fair in the 1920s, and a number of other images and documents. There are also pictures on the website for “Sister Aimee,” a PBS documentary that drew on Sutton’s book, and on a webpage about McPherson managed by the Foursqure Church, the Pentecostal denomination she founded.

In his novel Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis modeled the character of Sharon Falconer on McPherson. He described Falconer’s voice as “warm, a little husky, desperately alive,” and that matches McPherson’s, which you can hear preaching about Prohibition at the History Matters website. You can also hear early recordings of McPherson in a 1999 radio program, “Aimee Semple McPherson — An Oral Mystery,” part of NPR’s Lost and Found Sound series.

An odd side note, which I never even tried to sandwich into my article: Blumhofer writes that after Aimee and her second husband, Harold, separated in 1918, Harold preached for a while with “John and Elizabeth Ashcroft, evangelists in Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.” From scanning a few online biographies and genealogies, I’m fairly sure that these were the grandparents of former attorney general John Ashcroft.

Oh, and the photo above. Aimee Semple McPherson appears as a character in Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, but Sinclair switched McPherson’s sex when he novelized her. Like McPherson, Eli Watkins is a preacher in the Pentecostalist tradition who vanishes and is thought to have drowned; he comes back with a tale of having been held up in the water by three angels, though the rumor is that he spent the missing days in a beachfront hotel with an attractive young woman. That isn’t Eli Watkins on the book’s cover, which is the Grosset & Dunllap edition, because Watkins’s story is really no more than a minor subplot. The novel mostly concerns an idealistic young man, Bunny Ross, who discovers as he grows up that the oil business, which his father works in, corrupts politicians and civic life generally. Eventually Bunny becomes a “millionaire red,” vowing to spend his inheritance on a socialist labor college. When Bunny hears Eli preaching on the radio what he knows to be lies, he thinks to himself,

The radio is a one-sided institution; you can listen, but you cannot answer back. In that lies its enormouss usefulness to the capitalist system. The householder sits at home and takes what is handed to him, like an infant being fed through a tube. It is a basis upon which to build the greatest slave empire in history.

The woman in the illustration may be Eli’s sister, Ruth, a sort of shy shepherdess, who never quite turns into the love interest.

Notebook: Jackson and habeas corpus

Andrew Jackson

"Bad Precedent," my essay on Andrew Jackson and habeas corpus, appears in The New Yorker on 29 January 2007. As with earlier articles, I'm posting here a few outtakes and tips of the hat.

As ever, I owe the most to the book under review, Matthew Warshauer's Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship (available from Amazon and, for the same price, directly from the University of Tennessee Press).

I also learned much from three recent biographies of Jackson, very different in style and perspective. Jackson provokes feelings of surprising intensity, considering that he's a long-dead historical figure, and a great virtue of H. W. Brands's Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times is that it explains the sturm and drang around him in a calm, careful tone. Brands relies for the most part on published sources and doesn't offer new archival discoveries, but he places Jackson in context with impressive clarity, and his narrative is well constructed. (My only quibble is with his reliance, in a few places, on anecdotes about Jackson's early life from an early-twentieth-century account by Augustus C. Buell; Buell's stories were probably fiction, the scholar Milton W. Hamilton asserted in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1956. Of course it's possible that Brands has found reason to dissent from Hamilton's athetization. . . .)

Brands offers a generous but highly readable 600-plus pages. Sean Wilentz's Andrew Jackson, by contrast, is as lean and sinewy as Jackson himself. It also shares with Jackson an appetite for controversy: at 195 pages, Wilentz's book is designed for the reader who wants an introduction to Jackson in the course of an afternoon, but Wilentz manages nonetheless to find room to mount a sophisticated defense of Jackson from attacks by other historians—attacks which, he argues, fail to take account of the political realities of Jackson's day. Among others, Wilentz critiques Andrew Burstein, who, in The Passions of Andrew Jackson, condemns Jackson harshly, as a person and as a leader. Burstein's isn't a straight biography, but rather a study from a perspective that's a little hard to describe—a mixture of social history, psychology, and cultural studies. Burstein scants the political context, which is a rather large piece of the puzzle to leave out. Still, Burstein seems to have immersed himself in the primary sources, and presents evidence, often highly colorful, that is not easy to find elsewhere.

The big books on Jackson are two three-volume biographies: James Parton's, issued in 1859 and 1860, and Robert Remini's, issued in 1977, 1981, and 1984. Parton seems to have had most of the important sources available to him, and he's a beautiful stylist. Here he is setting the scene of New Orleans: "The Mississippi is apparently the most irresolute of rivers; the bed upon which it lies cannot long hold it in its soft embrace." And here he is on the impossibility of recovering the truth about Jackson's duel with legislator Thomas Hart Benton:

Neither the eyes nor the memory of one of these fiery spirits can be trusted. Long ago, in the early days of these inquiries, I ceased to believe any thing they may have uttered, when their pride or their passions were interested; unless their story was supported by other evidence or by strong probability. It is the nature of such men to forget what they wish had never occurred; to remember vividly the occurrences which flatter their ruling passion; and unconsciously to magnify their own part in the events of the past.

All three volumes of Parton's biography of Jackson are in Google Books: volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3. (The image above is the frontispiece to volume 2.) Though Parton sees Jackson's merits, he is not a fan, as Remini sometimes is. Remini is a researcher of great energy and diligence, and I would guess that he's the only person who has discovered more about Jackson than Parton did. I found myself disagreeing with some of his analyses, however. For example, Remini argues that Jackson's New Orleans victory did affect the territorial outcome of the War of 1812, despite the prior signing of the Treaty of Ghent. That seems unlikely to me, on the face of it; moreover, in 1979, in the journal Diplomatic History, the scholar James A. Carr turned to British military correspondence and internal diplomatic memoranda to show that by the end of the War of 1812, the British wanted nothing more than to wash their hands of America and conflict with Americans.

The article by Abraham D. Sofaer that I refer to at the end of the article is "Emergency Power and the Hero of New Orleans," Cardozo Law Review 2 (1980): 233 ff. Also useful, as I was thinking through the legal issues, was Ingrid Brunk Wuerth's "The President's Right to Detain 'Enemy Combatants': Modern Lessons from Mr. Madison's Forgotten War," Northwestern University Law Review 98 (2004):1567 ff. Unfortunately, neither of these is available online for free, though they're easy to find in for-profit databases. In fact, I turned up remarkably few Internet-enhanced multimedia supplemental whirligigs during my tours of Web procrastination this time out, but no Andrew Jackson blog post would be complete without a reference to the large White House cheese, and someone has digitized all of Benson J. Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, which has some of the best battle diagrams going, if you plan to read a blow-by-blow account and want some visual guidance. Of course, the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision is online, as is the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and they may be profitably read side by side.