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.

Mass-Observation in The New Yorker

May12

My article “Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation Movement and the Meaning of Everyday Life” is in the 11 September 2006 issue of The New Yorker. Herewith a few acknowledgments and extras (as usual, what follows will make more sense if you read the article first). . . .

My foremost debt is to the book under review, Nick Hubble’s Mass-Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, and Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, $85) (table of contents and sample chapter here). I also owe a great deal to two biographies, both of which are great reads: Judith M. Heimann’s The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life (University of Hawaii Press, $26.95) and Kevin Jackson’s Humphrey Jennings (Picador, £19.80).

Mass-Observation itself is still around, or rather, is around again. As Dorothy Sheridan, Brian Street, and David Bloome explain in Writing Ourselves: Mass-Observation and Literacy Practices, it was revived by the University of Sussex in time to recruit day-surveys for the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana, and the project is ongoing. You can explore the archive here; they also have a wonderfully comprehensive bibliography. The webpage of the reincarnated Mass-Observation specifies that they are “currently only recruiting male writers aged 16-44 living in all regions of the UK except the South East and South West,” but if you meet those criteria, you can enlist here.

The genesis of my article is unusually ancient. When I was in college, I found a copy of May the Twelfth (photographed above) in a used-book store and couldn’t figure out what it was. Since it only cost $8.50 and happened to be signed by Margaret Mead (a fact the bookseller helpfully glossed, in case would-be purchasers couldn’t read her handwriting), I bought it.

Meadsig

It wasn’t until more than a decade later that I read May the Twelfth and looked into who and what Mass-Observation were, and then, when I noticed Hubble’s book was coming out, suggested the idea to my editor.

The city of Bolton, which Mass-Observation referred to in print as “Worktown,” to give it a modicum of privacy, seems to have embraced the M-O legacy. The Bolton Museums Art Gallery and Aquarium has made scores of Humphrey Spender’s documentary photographs available in an online exhibition, Humphrey Spender’s ‘Worktown.’ Here, for example, is the supposed ex-cannibal Tom Harrisson shaving himself, using a dish as a hand-mirror, in the tumbledown M-O office at 85 Davenport Street (the one that stank of fish and chips), and here are a few men drinking in a Bolton pub. It’s hard to see the quality of Spender’s photos from these online samples; for that, Deborah Frizzell’s Humphrey Spender’s Humanist Landscapes: Photo-Documents, 1932-1942 is well worth the $45 price tag.

The easiest way for an American to see Humphrey Jennings’s films is by purchasing or renting Listen to Britain and Other Films (Image Entertainment, 2002), which is in the NTSC coding compatible with U.S. televisions. Unfortunately, Spare Time, the film I discuss in my article, isn’t included and is rather hard to track down. (The Museum of Modern Art’s film library arranged a screening for me, for which I’m incredibly grateful.) A few minutes from Spare Time appear in Rebecca Baron’s How Little We Know of Our Neighbours (49 min., 2005), a meditative documentary on Mass-Observation and on the nature of surveillance in society today, so try to catch it if screens at a festival near you. Baron’s film also features interviews she conducted with Humphrey Spender not long before he died—a real treat. (If you’re British—or rather, if your VCR and television are—you could see Spare Time on the British Film Institute’s video Britain in the Thirties and Jennings’s other films on The Humphrey Jennings Collection (Film First, 2005), both encoded in PAL. (Note: I haven’t viewed these last two titles, since my television is confiningly American.) Finally, the Criterion Collection has included Listen to Britain, one of Jennings’s wartime documentaries, on its DVD of A Canterbury Tale.

You can hear a Wurlitzer band organ playing an early 1939 performance of “The Lambeth Walk” from a paper roll on Gary Watkins and Matthew Caulfield’s online catalog of Wurlitzer music rolls. You can hear the American singer Eddie Cantor’s version here. The chorus in Spare Time who sing Handel while they help their pianist take off her coat are singing “Ombra mai fù.” I can’t seem to find a free 1930s version this morning, though Enrico Caruso does sing it; here, instead, is a cello-andano arrangement from 1908, taken from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

Kaboom

“The Terror Last Time,” my article about the 1886 trial of Chicago’s Haymarket anarchists, which is in part a review of James Green’s new book Death in the Haymarket, is published in the 13 March 2006 New Yorker. As it happens, there are many Haymarket resources on the web, so I thought I’d link to a few of them. What follows will seem a little scattered unless you read my article first (ahem), but if you’ve done that, then . . .

If you want to read the witnesses’ testimony yourself, the Chicago Historical Society has published the trial transcript in the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. The collection has all sorts of neat tidbits. If you thought my description of Louis Lingg’s beauty was a bit too breathless, for example, you can judge for yourself here. If you want to see exactly how nut and bolt screwed together to make a bomb, look here, for a bomb allegedly Lingg’s. The historical society also collaborated with Northwestern University to create Dramas of the Haymarket, a sort of online guided tour of the archival holdings.

The 2003 re-analysis of the Haymarket bomb fragments and evidence was described in this article by Timothy Messer-Kruse, James O. Eckert Jr., Pannee Burckel, and Jeffrey Dunn in a 2005 issue of the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.

The night before Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged, Parsons sang the Scotch ballad “Annie Laurie.” There’s no recording of Parsons himself singing it, but there’s a period recording of the song by the Edison Male Quartette in the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. As I mention in the article, the next morning, just a few hours before they were hanged, the men sang the “Workers’ Marseillaise” together. The three German speakers may well have sung in German, and I strongly suspect that that’s what’s being sung in this period recording. I’m not sure, though, because my German comprehension is extremely poor; it’s the right tune, certainly, and someone has catalogued it under the title Arbeiter, i.e., “workers.”