Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Impact of Friendships

Bronze bust of Ed Ricketts at site of death
Researching Isaac B. Werner and his community gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of friendships.  He was a prairie bachelor, far from his siblings and the Werner cousins, uncles, and aunts that had surrounded him as he was growing up.  Isaac's story involves his relationships within the prairie community, his place as a bachelor in an environment in which most men his age were married with children.  Part of the prairie story is the constant movement of new settlers arriving and others giving up on their homesteads, and while friendships were interrupted and new ones were made, those relationships were essential to survival.

During our recent John Steinbeck Retreat, one of the segments I most enjoyed was learning about the friendship between Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed "Doc" Ricketts.  Prior to the Retreat, I had not read Cannery Row or The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and I was unaware of the influential relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts.  Fortunately for me, one of the members of our group, Russ Eagle, has been a devoted fan of those books and the friendship between those two men, and his enthusiasm was contagious!

Display at Steinbeck Museum
Learning how many of the characters in Cannery Row are based on real people that Steinbeck knew when he lived there as a struggling writer, I was especially intrigued by the character "Doc."

In 2000, I created my Millennium Reading List of great books, together with a personal review form that I complete after finishing each book.  The reading list has grown (and I may never manage to read every book on the ever-expanding list), but I have maintained my commitment to do a review after finishing each book I read.  When I reviewed Cannery Row I described "Doc" in the Character section of the review as follows:  "...the owner and operator of Western Biological Laboratory, regarded as the local philosopher, respecter of music, literature, and art, and scientist whose speciality is marine life but whose experiments included rats, cats, and rattlesnakes."  In the Literary Techniques section of my review form, I wrote:  "The plot is draped loosely over two parties for Doc--one well-intentioned but catastrophic when he returns late and his 'guests' have destroyed his place, and the other a birthday party on the wrong day that began with sincere intentions and erupted into the only kind of successful party they could enjoy."  At that time I assumed the characters were creatures of Steinbeck's imagination.

Ed Ricketts Lab
View from back of lab, holding tanks
By the time I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I was aware that "Doc" was a real person and Steinbeck's great friend.  Frankly, I wasn't excited about reading The Log but it was one of the books to be discussed during the retreat, so I began.  The opening page was titled "About Ed Ricketts" and by the bottom of the page Ed's car had been struck by the Del Monte Express, and although he was conscious the severity of his injuries did not bode well for survival.  After his funeral Steinbeck turned to writing as his way to deal with the loss of his friend.  "...there is another reason to put Ed Ricketts down on paper.  He will not die.  He haunts the people who knew him.  He is always present even in the moments when we feel his loss the most.  ...Maybe if I write down everything I can remember about him, that will lay the ghost.  It is worth trying anyway."


Clay Jenkinson overlooking Ricketts holding tanks
I don't think Steinbeck's plan worked.  I believe he carried Ed Ricketts with him for the rest of his life.  Perhaps that is what all of us who are fortunate to have a great friendship in our lives must do.  Certainly Steinbeck made many of us feel like we had known Ed Ricketts...or wish we had known him.


Having introduced readers to Ed Ricketts, with whom the expedition on the Sea of Cortez was planned and experienced, the actual Log is introduced.  Steinbeck explained:  "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.  This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact.  And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there."  What follows is not only the literal description of their adventure, beginning with all of the planning before chartering the Western Flyer with its tolerant skipper Anthony Berry, and hiring the crew, but also the literary wanderings typical of Steinbeck that I so enjoy.

Acquarium
Also included in the Log is a discussion of "teleological thinking" which inserts its way into the book on Easter Sunday, when the crew did little collecting of specimens, instead half dozing and "...thinking of old things" and later discussing "manners of thinking and methods of thinking" involving what Steinbeck identified as teleological and non-teleological thinking.  This sort of discussion was typical of Steinbeck and Ricketts, who enjoyed exploring ideas and reason.  In fact, Ricketts had written his philosophy on this subject for which he had never found a publisher.  Much of this section in The Log from the Sea of Cortez came from Ricketts' writings, a sort of posthumous gift from Steinbeck to his friend.


Docent
During the Retreat we had a wonderful tour of the former Western Biological Laboratory, guided by an outstanding docent and concluded with a talk from author Susan Shillinglaw.  Although the laboratory had a brief life serving other uses, it was fairly well preserved during that time so that today it feels like Doc might soon return from one of his tidal pool forages and offer his guests a drink.

Susan Shillinglaw

After hard service and severe neglect, the Western Flyer is being restored, with plans for use as a sea-going classroom.  The magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium is only a few steps down the street from Doc's lab. The legacy of Ed Ricketts lives on.



(Remember, you may enlarge images by clicking on them.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Messages from History

Rock formations guided early settlers
I am fascinated by history.  It helps me evaluate the significance of current events and balance seeing those events as too impressive or too frightening.  As children we see the world as brand new, with each day seeming to have been born with us.  Life seems full of magic and monsters under our beds, because our personal history is only as long as our own tender lives.

With maturity, we lose some of the wonder but we gain greater knowledge of the world.  Part of that is simply experience.  The longer we live the more experiences we have to make us aware, and part of it is vicarious experience from education, reading, watching television, and picking up information helter-skelter--some of it valuable and some of it worthless or worse.  The formal teaching of history in schools is difficult and too often ineffective.  As adults most of us can still remember how ancient events only a decade or two in the past seemed.

Kansan John Brown's role in Civil War
As much as I appreciate an awareness of history now, I can't quite recall when it became important to me.  As a child I don't recall that I read much history, although I do remember seeing movies set in the past that intrigued me.

The thing that first intrigued me about Isaac Werner's journal was how many similarities I found in the late 1800s with current events.  When I first began working on the manuscript I was anxious to finish it and find a publisher as quickly as possible, because I thought it was so relevant to current events.  Yes, I do wish I had found that publisher more promptly, but what I have realized is that history doesn't go out of style.  Perhaps the things I initially found so relevant have subsided, but other current events have arisen that share common issues with the late 1800s when Isaac lived.

Another thing I have recognized is that in my youth I paid more attention to things that happened elsewhere than exploring the history of my own region.  I suspect that people fall into extremes, either overlooking the importance of things that happened in their own region or being too provincial in ignoring what happened elsewhere.  History gives us a broader view that helps us put things into perspective.

Beecher Bibles came to Kansas
I try with the blog to share overlooked sites and events of historical importance in Kansas.  I have certainly learned a great deal about my home state in the process of doing research, and I have  learned to be more observant.  Now, if we see a road sign pointing to some attraction a few miles off the highway, my husband and I are much more likely to take the time to explore.  How many times had we driven Interstate 70 without taking the time to visit the amazing rock formations nearby?  Why had we not discovered the church connected with Beecher Bibles.  Would we ever have bothered to see Dr. Higley's cabin?  I have shared those three experiences in this blog, as well as many others, and as one blog follower told me, "You have given me many new places to visit."

But what I also have tried to do is share ideas from the past that have relevance to today's events.  They are part of our heritage.  How many Kansans know that a significant reason that Kansas is a "red state" today is because so many Union soldiers staked homestead claims here after the Civil War.  They were soldiers from Lincoln's Army, they voted Republican, and many of their descendants still do.

We are losing voices from the past
My great-grandfather was one of those Union soldiers, but I had no idea his military history influenced the political conversations around the dinner table when I was growing up until I began during the research for my manuscript.  Soldiers were given a year's credit for each year they served as a Union soldier to apply toward satisfying the five years required to live on and improve their claim in order to acquire title.  Confederate soldiers received no such benefit.  Many of Isaac Werner's neighbors were former Union soldiers. I suspect there are historical explanations of all kinds lurking unknown in most families' histories.

I think it is interesting to discover those things.  The current popularity of genealogy research would seem to indicate that others agree.  Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites include ways to not only discover who your ancestors are but also what was happening in the times in which they lived.  I hope those of you who follow my blog find the the grab-bag of historical information I have shared on the blog to be of relevance and interest to you and your children.

Our community recently lost one of those people who could share first-hand accounts of World War II.  Emerson Shields spoke at the Veterans' ceremony at the Stafford School this past Veterans' Day, but now he is gone.  Isaac B. Werner left his daily journal, whose pages inspired me to write a manuscript about the struggles of the working class of farmers, miners, and factory workers in the late 1800s--a struggle that led to the creation of the People's Party that many people living today know little or nothing about.  Yet, many of the goals of those struggling workers are accepted realities today.  Our current lives are filled with whispered message from the past that we should pause to hear.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Look at Poetry

Visiting the grave of Emily Dickinson 
It has become my tradition to remember the importance of Poetry in April.  Those of you who are regular followers of the blog may remember my post inspired by a reading given by Kansas Poet Laureate (2013-2015) Wyatt Townley.  It was my friend Shirley who invited me to join her at the Kinsley Library to hear Ms. Townley read some of her poetry at an event sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC).

Two specific things were the direct result of my participation in that KHC sponsored event.  First, I tend to write poetry in spurts, a genuine amateur who lacks the discipline to sit down regularly and wait for the muse to whisper in my ear.  Rather, some sight or sound or thought will inspire me, and the result will be another poem added to my ever-growing notebook.  Wyatt Townly inspired me that day with her own poetry, her enthusiasm, and a challenge to try a form of verse I had never heard of, and consequently, had never tried to write.  The Cinquain consists of five un-rhymed lines of poetry with a strict adherence to the number of syllables per line:  2/4/6/8/2.  Each Kansas Poet Laureate develops some project to encourage an appreciation for poetry, and Townley encouraged Kansans to write a cinquain about their state.  Each month she selected a cinquain to be published as part of her regular poetry columns printed in newspapers across the state.  One month, mine was chosen to be published.  My cinquain that was selected by Wyatt Townley for recognition appears below.

Summer

Lightning
Bugs at twilight,
Juicy watermelon
On the lawn, serenaded by
Crickets.

Wyatt Townley at Kinsley
At that time I was serving on the Board of the Vernon Filley Art Museum in Pratt, KS, and the second direct result of hearing Townley was my recommendation that we invite Wyatt Townley to speak and read her poetry to our Legacy Arts Supporters.  She was nearing the end of her two-year appointment as Poet Laureate, but she managed to fit an evening into her schedule.  Frankly, there were those whose enthusiasm for inviting Wyatt did not quite match mine; however, the evening was a huge success--among the most enthusiastic fans by the closing poem were some of those who had worried the most about how well a poetry reading would be received!  Of course, it doesn't hurt that Wyatt Townley is an excellent speaker as well as a fine poet, but the doubters in the audience that night learned that poetry, well-read, can be a compelling experience.  Wyatt Townley even sold out some of the volumes she had brought to make available at the end of her presentation!

Recently, I received an e-mail from Wyatt and three other past Kansas Poet Laureates--Denise Low (2007-09), Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (2009-2013), and Eric McHenry (2015-2017).  The message reminded Kansans that in 2016 KHC had provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of our state.  The current cost-cutting threat to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which costs the average American 50 cents a year according to the e-mail, is the primary support for many humanities programs in Kansas and other states.  

Robert Service "The cremation of Sam McGee"
The e-mail pointed out that the Kansas Poet Laureates average 50 public appearances a year at colleges and schools, but primarily small-town libraries and community centers, with the travel stipend they receive paid entirely by private donors--like those who paid expenses when Wyatt visited the Filley.  (It should be noted that, in turn, Wyatt spent that stipend for lodging, fuel, and other purchases in the Pratt community in connection with her visit.  The benefits to the community were economic as well as cultural.)  The NEH funding of the Kansas Humanities Council funds the staff that supports the Poet Laureate program, a program with a national reputation for excellence.

The number of "closet" poetry fans is surprising.  We had a friend who could launch into the recitation of long narrative poems with the slightest encouragement.  Our niece, who has been engaged in a brave battle with cancer for several years, finds solace and courage in poetry and is sometimes inspired to write her own.  Humorist Garrison Keillor shares his love for poetry on NPR; former President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, has published a book of her favorite poems for children; young parents recite nursery rhymes to babies who will carry on the tradition to their own children in an unbroken generational chain...  Traditional, un-rhymed, humorous--the list of poetry that people enjoy is endless.  

So, as I tend to do each April, I encourage you to pick up a book of poetry this month--if you have forgotten how much enjoyment and inspiration poetry holds, or pick up a pencil and exercise your own talents for poetry which you have allowed to lie dormant.  And while you are thinking about it, you might consider speaking out in support of the importance of the arts and humanities to the nation.  We must not realize the individual and national importance of those things only too late--when they are already gone...

(Just for fun, I challenge you to write your own cinquain about April or Spring, or whatever inspires you, and send it as a Comment to this blog post or directly to me.  Teachers, challenge your students of all ages to write a Cinquain.  Remember:  five lines with specific syllables in each line--2, 4, 6, 8, 2.  It's about the creative discipline of imagery and feeling within the strict limitations of syllable counts.  I'm curious to see if any of you will take the challenge!) 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Climbing Fremont Peak

View of Fremont Peak
In early 1846, John Charles Fremont arrived in the Sacramento Valley and set about stirring up American patriotism among settlers there.  When he camped near the highest summit of a mountain range bordering the valley, now called the Gabilan Range, at what is now known as Fremont Peak, he nearly provoked a battle with Mexican General Jose Castro, who had thousands of troups in the Monterey region.  Had the conflict occurred, Fremont's troops would likely have been annihilated.  It was judgments such as this near mistake that have left Fremont with a mixed reputation among historians, some saying his impetuous actions over-shadowed his military accomplishments, which other historians judge more highly.

Steinbeck Retreat Climbers
The same mixed assessment of 23 climbers who scrambled to the topmost point of Fremont Peak might be made as to whether their assault on the jagged peak was brave or foolish.  The oldest climber was 80 years young, and she, like all the rest of us, would not have missed the experience.

We did not climb the peak to start a war but rather to experience the emotions John Steinbeck shared in his account of Travels with Charley.  We were led not by Fremont but rather by historian, author, and host of The Thomas Jefferson Hour, Clay Jenkinson.  We had come together for a week to discuss John Steinbeck and his books, and to visit sites relevant to the man and his work.  It was our last day of hiking to places Steinbeck had visited and written about, and it was an especially awesome site.

Preserving the view
When Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley, In Search of America, he was no longer young.  He had not visited his beloved California in several years, and living on the East Coast he sensed that he could no longer feel the pulse of the nation.  He decided to set out with his beloved standard poodle Charley 'in search of America.'  He had a camper custom-made atop a pickup, and he headed north to Maine and traveled across the upper states before reaching Monterey.

His return to the California coast of his youth was a disappointment, for the places he remembered were not the same, nor were the old friends who were still there.  "In my memory it stood as it once did and its outward appearance confused and angered me."  He realized that Thomas Wolfe had been right.  Steinbeck wrote:  "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."  However, he allowed himself one last sentimental thing.  He drove to Fremont's Peak, now Fremont Peak State Park,  and with his dog Charley, "...climbed the last spiky rocks to the top."

Reading from Travels with Charley
On March 8, 2017, 23 Steinbeck enthusiasts found foot and hand holds in the craggy rocks and helping hands to grasp as they summitted this rocky peak.  At the top, they listened as Steinbeck scholar Russ Eagle read the passage in which Steinbeck reclaimed his affection for this place from his youth.  "Here on these high rocks my memory myth repaired itself.  Charley, having explored the area, sat at my feet, his fringed ears blowing like laundry on a line." Charley had not been a part of Steinbeck's life in that region when he was a young man, so Steinbeck described for his canine companion his memories of the place,  relating what his heart saw rather than the changes which had so disturbed him.

When Steinbeck finished sharing his memories with the dog, he wrote, "I printed it once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love."

My husband & I atop Fremont Peak
It was to hear Russ Eagle read those words in this place that all of us had risked personal safety to make the climb.  The sky was clear and the breeze was slight--the most perfect day of the trip, and we savored the experience a while longer before reversing our path.  It was a great day.

Isaac B. Werner was only a toddler when Fremont nearly started a war, but John C. Fremont became the 5th Territorial Governor of Arizona in 1878, the same year Isaac came to stake his claims in Kansas.  Although Fremont was born 3 decades before Isaac, he outlived Isaac by 5 years.  Both men are now a part of my experiences with history, but especially, my afternoon on Fremont Peak gave me a feeling of Steinbeck the man, beyond Steinbeck the writer.

Our Steinbeck Retreat was wonderful, and I will continue to share some of our experiences in future blogs.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Adapting to Changing Technologies

Rossville, Illinois Rail Road Station
Every generation must adapt to changing technologies.  When the railroad came to Rossville, IL Isaac Werner was the proprietor of a drug store, and he opposed its arrival.  In 1871, he had joined other merchants in arguing that the town was not yet ready for a railroad.  He believed that the workers laying the track would bring a disreputable class of men to the town, and the bonds that were needed to pay for the railroad's arrival would be a burdensome expense without the promised benefits. However, the farmers around Rossville nearly all supported the railroad, eager for a way to get their crops to markets, just as Isaac did a decade or so later, when he was marketing his own crops in Kansas.

New technologies nearly always result in conflicting opinions about their worth, opinions that are often generational.  The present technological changes are no exception, and this blog shares some that concern me.

As a writer, I pay particular attention to changes in book marketing, legal protections for authors, and readership trends.  Past blogs have bemoaned the drop in book readership and the importance of encouraging the habit of reading in our children.  On the Madison Building of the Library of Congress is inscribed the following quote from James Madison:  "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governours, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Stereoscope for viewing 3-D Images

In the most recent issue of my writers' bulletin, the Executive Director expressed her concern about the unsettled state of distrust and accusations about fake news, altnews, and "alternative facts." She described how including copyright law in the Constitution was a measure of how much the Founding Fathers valued cultivating an American "...class of writers, thinkers, and artists, not beholden to government or private patronage." She predicted that as we become less confident in the accuracy of newspapers and television news, people may turn to well-researched books, vetted by reputable publishers, for accurate information.  Her closing words to authors were "your work is more important than ever."  I would like to think so, but only if more people read the books that are written!

In that same issue a writer shared a troubling discovery.  Because both the author and her assistant had purchased a used copy of the same book from the same online bookseller at about the same time, they discovered that each of them had been shown a different list of the same book available for purchase.  The graduate student with a history of spending less for the books she bought from the online bookseller was shown less expensive books, while the author with a history of buying more expensive books if she needed them for her research was shown a different list of the same title at higher prices.  The author continued to check the online bookseller for several days without buying, and eventually a cheap paperback copy appeared on the list, with the more expensive books omitted, leading the author to assume that when she didn't buy a higher priced copy, the seller showed her a cheaper choice. The bottom line to the story is that apparently algorithms had been used to track both of their purchasing habits, and the selections each was shown were modified, according to what each of them might be willing to pay, cheaper prices for the graduate student and more expensive prices for the author.

'Modern' replacement for the scythe
It had never occurred to me that with my own online used book buying my purchasing habits might be followed or that an online seller might offer books at different prices based on my apparent willingness to pay.  I frequently shop online for used and out-of-print books, and I bought several books that were titles Isaac Werner had owned, choosing the oldest editions I could find in an attempt to replicate what Isaac would have been reading.  Algorithms!  I had never heard of that!!  I don't know if all online used booksellers engage in this practice, but this very popular one--which sells both new and used books-- apparently does.

Most of us are willing to pay the market price for what we need or want, but are we willing to pay a different price to get the same thing?

Recently my husband and I were watching the Academy Awards and I was surprised to hear Amazon mentioned several times in connection with the making of films nominated for awards.  The special Hollywood edition of Vanity Fair had an article titled "That's All Folks!" which offered comments of how technologies are changing entertainment, using the music industry as an early example of CD sales declining as younger buyers preferred downloading a single song that they liked rather than buying the complete album, getting a single song for a dollar or so versus an album for about twenty dollars. With the change in buying habits, profits dropped, and according to the article, the music industry has shrunk to about half its former size in just a decade.

The article continued using print news as another example, quoting newspaper advertising revenues as having fallen from $67 billion in 2000 to $19.9 billion in 2014.  No wonder newspapers are failing and surviving newspapers are shrinking in content.  With my own awareness of merged and failed publishing houses, and some universities downsizing or eliminating their university presses, I was already familiar with the changes in the publishing world, which the article cited next, noting that many people prefer paying $9.99 for a digital book rather than $25. for the hardcover.

Antique still Camera
But, the main subject of the article was the movies, which indicated that movie theater attendance is at a 19-year low, and between 2007 and 2011 overall profits for the big-5 movie studios fell by 40%.  According to the article, 70% of box office comes from abroad, which impacts the type of movies being made.  In addition, the big studios are facing competition from companies from outside the entertainment industry.

According to the article, in the 1950s movies were the third largest retail business in the U.S. at a time when people looked forward to going out to the movies.  Now the trend is toward enjoying entertainment in our homes.  Theaters are much more expensive for traditional studios to build and maintain than the cost to new companies entering the business and catering to those who would rather stay home and have a movie delivered to their TV, laptop, or phone.  Only if enough people want to go to theaters to watch movies will it be economically feasible for traditional movies intended to be shown on the big screens in theaters to continue to be made.  Otherwise, theaters may give way to the new technology bringing movies to our homes.

Ironically, theaters seem to be countering this trend by making the theater experience more 'home-like,' with reclining seats and food delivered to trays built into the seats--just like kicking back at home with a sandwich and a cold drink to watch a movie on the large screen of your TV!  

Even more futuristic to my way of thinking is the technology that can create human images.  A recent television program showed the technology that allowed one of the main actors to appear in a popular movie series long after he had died.  The face of Peter Cushing was superimposed on another actor's body in Rogue One.  A man who has done special effects for several films is quoted in the Vanity Fair article as predicting that by 2022 graphics will be "indistingishable from reality."

At an American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta that I attended years ago, I learned about digital cameras for the first time.  I knew by heart the questions necessary to authenticate photographs I wanted to have introduced into evidence during a trial, and I couldn't imagine how digital photographs could be used as evidence, with their capacity for easy alteration.  Technology will not stand still, and we must adapt, but I do worry about how difficult reality and truth will be to ascertain in a world already tending toward "alternate facts."

Chicken Little thinks the sky is falling!  (antique book)
In the early 1880s a settler could claim a quarter-section of 180 acres and keep a cow and raise crops to feed his family, and maybe produce enough to sell some wheat or corn or potatoes in town for a little extra cash.  In a decade or so those farmers had needed to expand their farms if they were to survive.  Isaac Werner invented a 3-horse cultivator that allowed him to plow more ground in less time, proud that he had created something that would allow one farmer to buy or rent more ground, raise more crops, and improve his standard of living.  Isaac never mentioned in his journal any awareness that his cultivator might also displace small farmers and could reduce the number of farmers able to survive in his community.  Technology will happen and life will change.  It is all the more reason for us and the generations that follow to see education as an ongoing responsibility.  The capacity to hood-wink and mislead is only growing, and we must be prepared not to be fooled.  As journalist Dan Rather wrote in reply to the notion of "alternate facts:"  "Facts and the truth are not partisan.  They are the bedrock of our democracy.  And you are either... with our Constitution, our history, and the future of our nation, or you are against it.  Everyone must answer that question."

It has been my premise since the first posting of this blog that we have much to learn from history, and I still believe that is true.  Nearly every generation has had a Chicken Little 'the sky is falling' moment, and we must not view technology as the enemy.  However, we must recognize that the potential of technology presents new challenges along with its benefits and we must rise to the challenge or fail as never before.`

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Freedom of Speech and Accurate News


Imagine living in a time and place before internet, before television, even before radio.  Then, imagine you were living on a homestead claim far from the nearest town.  How did news spread?  In Isaac's community it spread by word of mouth and by newspaper.  In the rural community where Isaac lived he had many neighbors within a few minute's walk, and the 'grape-vine' was quite effective.  In addition, there was a rural mail carrier to deliver letters and newspapers, as well as the farming journals to which Isaac subscribed.  Freedom of speech and the press were alive and well!


Yet, because of such Constitutional protection, the accuracy of what was published was subject to little or no regulation.  Newspapers, not to mention Isaac's local neighbors, had their own bias which colored their news.  On the other hand, the close proximity of neighbors provided not only the rapid disbursement of gossip and rumor but also the opportunity for what is sometimes called "a marketplace of ideas," the result of many diverse opinions allowing a collective consensus to be reached, the theory being that neighborhood conversations will begin to form a generally accepted point of view, wise or foolish as it may be.  In most communities, including Isaac's own, respected leaders emerge, and their comments carry more weight, sometimes so much weight that no opposing opinions gain any traction.  Yet, then as now, freedom of speech allows anyone with an opposing point of view to express it, if he dares.

When the progressive movement reached Isaac's community, the strongly Republican neighborhood split, about half adhering to their Republican opinions but the other half (drawn from both old parties but particularly former Democrats) giving Populism a try.  In one 7th district state election two popular men ran against each other, and the People's Party candidate won locally by a single vote, neighbors almost equally divided.  There was extensive back-and-forth between the St. John News and the County Capital during the campaigning!

The written press of Isaac's time did not worry too much about balanced reporting, and their bias was clear.  However, there were many newspapers, and if one got its facts wrong there was probably another one who would call them out.  The government stayed out of it!

Edward R. Murrow
With the arrival of radio and television, it was necessary for stations to acquire broadcasting licenses, and the airways did not allow for the same proliferation of stations that news print had allowed.  The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) decided that it was important that stations given broadcasting licenses be honest, equitable, and balanced in their reporting.  In 1949 they imposed the Fairness Doctrine.  Broadcast license holders were required to present controversial issues of public importance to accommodate an informed public and those issues had to be presented accurately, fairly, and in a balanced manner.  The information could be presented through news, editorials, or shows, and opposing views did not have to receive equal time, (the equal time requirement relates to political candidates), but the purpose was to give the public a diversity of information.  Although the United States Supreme Court had ruled favorably on the Constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine, in 1987 the FCC abolished the doctrine.  It is widely believed that Ronald Reagan instigated the revocation, and three of the four sitting FCC commissioners at the time of revocation had been named by President Reagan, the fourth having been named by Richard Nixon.

Subsequent efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine have all failed, one effort in 2007 having been opposed in the House by the current Vice-President, Mike Pence; however, President Obama also opposed the revival of the Doctrine during his time in office, and it was during Obama's presidency  that the language that implemented the old Fairness Doctrine was removed during a broader editing of the Federal Register.  The abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine has not been decided by which party occupied the White House.

It is widely agreed that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine seems associated with the political polarization in the United States, if not a contributing factor.  Is this conclusion reasonable?  In Isaac's time there was no Fairness Doctrine, and even when the Fairness Doctrine existed, it did not apply to newspapers.  Was the doctrine really all that important?

Journalism is a profession, and reputable journalists strive for accuracy in delivering the news.  In modern times, the traditional thinking has been that people want to know the truth, and careless or one-sided coverage of the news would result in loss of viewership and subscribers.  That economic reality was assumed to keep reporters honest, even if their sense of professional ethics did not.

Recently, however, the question has become whether it is truth or affirmation of viewers' bias which determines economic success for the news media.  The importance of a free and independent press capable of delivering accurate news to Americans has been considered so important that the press is sometimes called the "Fourth Branch" of our government.  Presidents of both parties have had their quarrels with the news but have also used the media to their advantage at times.  Presidents have always understood the important role of the press in our government, but perhaps that role has never been more debated than it is today.

Next week's blog will take a look at just how complicated changing technologies are making things.




Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Founding Fathers & Freedom of the Press

It may be remembered from last week's post that George Washington considered Freedom of Speech so important that without it, he feared Americans would be rendered "dumb and silent."  I'm not sure whether he used the term "dumb" to mean 'without speech' or 'stupid.'  Either way, it was clear that Washington regarded freedom of speech very highly.

There was a great debate among our Founding Fathers regarding the need for a Bill of Rights.  Some felt there was no need, since what wasn't expressly given away by citizens to the government was a freedom they retained.  Others felt that a Bill of Rights was essential to protect particular freedoms by enumerating them.  Still others questioned how it would be possible to name every possible freedom meant to be retained by citizens.  Some arguments were a matter of political practicality--opposition to adding a Bill of Rights was motivated by the goal of getting the Constitution ratified as promptly as possible, without getting tangled up in debates over a Bill of Rights. Obviously, the Constitution was ratified and a Bill of Rights was added, which courts have construed to protect our freedoms.

Representative Journals of the United States, 1885; Newspapers and their editors shown:  1st Row:  The Union and Adviser, Wm Purcell; The omaha Daily Bee, Edward Rosewater; The Boston Daily Globe, Chs. H. Taylor; Boston Morning Journal, Wm Warland Clapp; The Kansas City Times, Morrison Mumford; The Pittsburg Diispatch, Eugene M. O'Neill.  2nd Row:  Albany Evening Journal, John A. Sleicher; The Milwaukee Sentinel, Horace Rublee; The Philadelphia Record, Wm M. Singerly; The New York Times, Geo. Jones; The Philadelphia Press, Chs. Emory Smith; The Daily Inter Ocean, Wm Penn Nixon; The news & Courier, Francis Warington Dawson.  3rd Row:  Buffalo Express, James Newson Smith; The Daily Pioneer Press, Jos. A. Wheelock; The Atlanta Constitution, Henry W. Grady and Evan Howell; San Francisco Chronicle, Michael H. de Young; The Washington Post, Stilson Hitchins.  (Enlarge by clicking on the image.)
Freedom of the Press was one of those freedoms about which concerns were raised as ratification of the Constitution was debated.  Some states had already included freedom of the press in their state constitutions.  In #84 of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton addressed concerns about the need for expressly protecting freedom of the press.  He did not disagree with the importance of a free press but rather based his argument on the impractically of drafting such protection.  "What is the liberty of the press?" he asked.  "Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?"  Hamilton continued, "...whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general opinion of the people and of the government."

Yet, ultimately it was decided that a Bill of Rights should be added, and the First Amendment to the Constitution states "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

Coverage of the Sinking of the Maine
That freedom is not completely without limit.  For example, courts have ruled that a man cannot stand up in a theater and shout "Fire!" when there is none, to cause a panic that would likely cause injury to those attempting to flee a nonexistent danger.  Pornography is another example of limited speech, as is slandar.  In addition to legal limits, social customs have also limited speech in such ways as disapproving vulgarity, expecting the courtesy of quiet during religious observances and cultural performances, and observing traditions of sportsmanship during athletic competitions.  Each generation has shaped those customs.

From a political perspective, free speech and a free press allow issues to be debated and policies to be shaped.  In the case of Whitney v. California, decided in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote:  "...freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth."  In the 1880s and 1890s of Isaac Werner's time, publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer exerted huge influence across the nation, Hearst with the San Francisco Examiner, published in San Francisco, and Pulitizer with The World, published in New York. But, as described in last week's blog, countless small newspapers in towns across the nation also exerted their influence.

Coverage of the Sinking of the Maine
The images of front page coverage of the sinking of the Maine in Cuba illustrate the power of newspapers to inflame national support for declaring war against Spain, the New York Journal describing the explosion as "the work of an enemy" and The World declaring "caused by bomb or torpedo.  The advance toward war was already underway when investigation led to the conclusion that explosion of a boiler on the ship was the likely cause.

Today, many once powerful newspapers have ceased to exist, and the newspapers still being published in small towns have shrunk to a few pages which are no longer published daily.  Americans are more likely to get their news on television and the internet than from a daily newspaper, and concern is growing about altnews and 'alternativefacts.'

However, questions about truth and accuracy in the press are nothing new.  In doing the research for my manuscript, I found one interesting example.  Homesteaders in Kansas and elsewhere had gone deeply in debt when prices for their crops were high, and they had mortgaged their farms to pay for livestock, implements, fencing, and improvements such as buildings and windmills.  When crop prices fell and interest rates for the renewal of their loans soared, they were at risk of foreclosure.  A fear spread that English investors would buy up the mortgages and American farmers would fall victim to a serfdom like tenant farmers in Ireland.  Political parties added prohibitions against foreign ownership of land to their platforms--not just the populists but also the two mainstream parties, and states passed laws prohibiting foreign ownership of land.  Yet, while there were examples in Kansas and other states of communities in which settlers from other nations came as a group to settle, I struggled to find examples of foreign investors attempting to replicate the Irish system of tenant farmers in America, although many newspapers warned of that threat.

Next week's blog will explore the continuing role of the press in America, both in the past and the present.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

The County Capital & The St. John News

Ad from the County Capital
For those of you who follow this blog, you have frequently seen references to The County Capital.  It was the newspaper to which Isaac Werner subscribed and for which he occasionally wrote.  It was the newspaper of the progressive movement, and it unabashedly supported populist ideas.

The St. John News was the Republican newspaper.  Its bias was equally obvious, for which they made no apologies.  That was the practice of that era, and people subscribed to the paper with which they agreed.

The community of Stafford had the Stafford Democrat, which declared its perspective in its name, so it appears that if you lived in Stafford County in the 1880s, you were able to subscribe to a newspaper that printed the news with the bias that allowed you to read the news from the perspective you wanted to read.  

Just as I have often quoted from one of President Bush's advisors, "People read to be affirmed, not to be informed," and that was true in Isaac's time, just as it is today.  While it might be thought that the internet, which makes access to information so easily available, would make people more broadly informed, that has not appeared to be the case.

Political cartoon re wealthy control of the press
Freedom of the press is one of our most valued promises, alongside freedom of speech.  They are really just two sides of the same coin, for one is a form of speech published widely and the other is speech which may or may not be more limited.  Our first President, George Washington, said:  "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."  But what if that freedom is used to protect misinformation and propaganda as well as factual information?

Americans are generous in protecting these freedoms.  As lawyer Alan Dershowitz has said:  "Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views.  It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent. 

Clearly, in Isaac's time the use of newspapers for political purposes was commonplace.  Political parties even endorsed specific newspapers as their official organ.  The St. John News made a joke of having lost subscribers due to the popularity of the populist movement in their area, saying 'now our former subscribers have to borrow a copy to read the News.'

The importance of free speech is not just an American ideal, however. French novelist, Marcel Proust, who lived from 1871 to 1922, wrote:  "As long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost and science can never regress."

Ad from the County Capital
Even earlier, French lawyer and member of the Committee of Public Safety, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) wrote:  "The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."  That enlightened quote must be considered, however, with awareness that he is perhaps best known for his role in the French Revolution's Reign of Terror and his support for political killings.

In researching the populist movement that swept the nation in the 1880s and 1890s, and which found such acceptance in Kansas, newspapers were a valuable source for my research.  Even small towns had multiple newspapers.  Without radio, television or the internet, people got their news from the newspapers and from orators that traveled the country to speak at large mass rallies.  It was an exciting time in Kansas.  Next week I will share more history about balancing freedom of speech and the press with the delivery of information for an informed public.

The ads and the political cartoon are from the County Capital newspaper during the late 1880s and early 1890s.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall
Isaac B. Werner's Journal in Kansas was resumed in 1884 and continued daily through 1891.  During that time, only four United States Supreme Court nominations were presented to the Senate by the President.  Since the issue of selecting a replacement for Justice Scalia has been in the news now for nearly a year, I thought it would be interesting to see what had happened during the time Isaac was writing in his journal.

During that time the selection of Justices for the Kansas Supreme Court was highly significant, but Isaac's journal contains no reference to the four US Supreme Court appointments between 1884 and 1891.

During 1884-1891 while Isaac was writing in his journal, President Cleveland nominated two men during his first term, both of whom were confirmed by the Senate--Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar in 1887 and Melville Fuller in 1888.  Cleveland's first and second terms were interrupted by the election of President Harrison, who nominated David Josiah Brewer in 1889 and Henry Billings Brown in 1890, both of whom were confirmed.  (After Isaac's journal ended but prior to Isaac's death, Harrison nominated 2 other justices who were confirmed, and during Cleveland's second term he nominated 4 men, 2 of whom were rejected, the nomination of 1 was not acted upon, and 1 was confirmed by voice vote shortly before Isaac's death.)

John Marshall, whose image appears at the beginning of this blog, served on the court for 34 years, from 1801-1835.  The son of Thomas Marshall and Mary Isham Keith, Marshall fit the stereotype for America's early leaders, having been born in a log cabin and raised in a rural community so far from a school that he was largely home schooled.  Yet, despite his humble beginnings, he is regarded as perhaps our greatest Chief Justice for the reason that he set many precedents that now define the American legal system.  Therefore, although Marshall served before Isaac Werner's lifetime, the Supreme Court that Isaac knew, as well as the Supreme Court those of us living now know, was shaped by this man.

It is ironic that one precedent that his nomination set was ignored in the hub-bub of the recent election year.

John Adams
John Marshall was nominated by John Adams on January 20, 1801.  He was confirmed by voice vote 7 days later.  What was unusual about that was that John Adams had already been defeated by Thomas Jefferson when he nominated Marshall and was a lame duck president with only days left to serve in that office when he nominated a justice with open hostility toward the new President-elect.  Yet, the Senate did not hesitate to confirm the nominee, which was acknowledged even at that time as having been done by Adams for political reasons.

It was, in one sense, a sort of pay back, since President Washington had nominated Oliver Elsworth in 1796 in the last days of his presidency to thwart John Adam's ability to fill the vacancy.  

Therefore, the precedent that lame duck presidents have the authority to nominate someone for the Supreme Court with the expectation that the Senate will consider the nominee in a timely way was set by our first two Presidents.

In 2016, with ten months of his second term in office remaining, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat formerly occupied by Justice Scalia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to bring Garland's nomination to the floor for consideration. McConnell stated his belief that the American people should have a say in who was chosen to fill the seat.  In fact, the American people had "their say" when they elected Senator McConnell and every other sitting Senator whose duty as Senators was to "advise and consent," just as the American people had "their say" when they elected President Obama to a second term of four years with the responsibility to fill any vacancy on the Court during his term of office.  There are six options available to the Senate when a President names his nominee.

Once nominations are formally sent by the President to the Senate for their "advice and consent," the Senate (or in some cases, the nominee) may take one of the following actions:
1.  "take no action," in which the Senate session ends without the nomination being brought to the floor for consideration;
2.  "postpone," in which it is brought to the floor but a vote is taken to defer consideration;
3.  "reject," in which the nominee fails to receive confirmation;
4.  "confirm," in which the nominee is confirmed and he/she accepts the confirmation;
5.  "decline," in which the nominee declines the nomination; and
6.  "withdraw," in which the nominee accepts but subsequently withdraws before confirmation.

Obviously, politics have played a role in every appointment and confirmation, with Presidents making their choices based on men and women who share their political views regarding the Constitution.  Likewise, Senators cast their votes for or against these nominees not only on the basis of the qualifications of the nominee but also with regard to political differences about Constitutional issues.

From most all reasonable accounts, two honorable men have been nominated to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia's death--Merrick Garland by President Obama and Neil Gorsuch by Trump.  Had Garland been confirmed, politics would have played a role in the Senate's responsibility to advise and consent, just as politics will play a role if Gorsuch is considered...as politics played a role when the late nominations of Oliver Elsworth and John Marshall were confirmed two centuries ago.

Clearly, one of the actions possible for the Senate to take is "take no action," which is what was done in the case of Merrick Garland's nomination.

United States Supreme Court
However, it is important that Americans understand that the implication that a President lacks the power to nominate his choice for the court during a presidential election year is incorrect.  The nominations of justices by our first two Presidents were far later in their terms; yet, the Senate fulfilled their Constitutional duty to advise and consent and both nominees were confirmed. Of course, midnight appointments have always been closely scrutinized, but in comparison to the acts of Washington and Adams, disposing of a nominee made ten months prior to the end of the President's term through "no action" was neither a questionable midnight appointment nor without precedent.

There were, until 2016, only four examples of  "no action" taken on a Supreme Court nominee. President Tyler struggled to fill two seats on the court during his presidency, and he succeeded in filling only one.  The other seat on the court remained empty until President Polk filled it.  President Fillmore also struggled to fill the seat of one justice, "no action" taken on his first nominee, the second nominee "withdrawn," a third "declined," and "no action" taken on his fourth attempt, a very late nomination in February just prior to President Pierce's inauguration on March 4th.  President Hays attempted a late nomination which was not acted upon; however, President Garfield then renominated the same man when he was inaugurated.

Although there are many examples of politics, rather that the merits of the nominee, defeating a President's choice for the Court, Americans should not be confused by recent events to believe that our Presidents lack such authority in the final year of their Presidency.  Were that so, we would never have had one of our greatest Chief Justices, John Marshall.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Inspiration & Motivation


Isaac Beckley Werner's Journal
Searching for an old journal, kept by a man I had never heard of that allegedly contained references to my ancestors, resulted in my manuscript about Isaac Werner, his community, and the Populist Movement in Kansas.  As a by-product, it resulted in my weekly sharing of Kansas history through this blog.  We never know what may inspire us and motivate us to do something we might never otherwise have imagined!

For Ken Spurgeon, it was a collection of Civil War letters.  As a graduate student in history, he learned that if a Kansas settler were a non-combatant or claimed no allegiance in the free state vs pro-slavery bloody years when Kansans and Missourians fought, a sheet over their chimney would signal their lack of alliance to either side.  Among the letters that Spurgeon read was one written by a woman who explained that to leave a chimney bare, or "lone," was a declaration of who you were and what you stood for.

Memioral on side of Dr. Higley's cabin
In 2003, when Ken Spurgeon and Jonathon Goering formed their company to make their first documentary, "Touched by Fire:  Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861," Ken remembered that letter and it became the inspiration for naming their company Lone Chimney Films. Since then have come "Bloody Dawn:  The Lawrence Massacre," "The Road to Valhalla," and most recently "Home on the Range, The Story of America's Iconic Song."

Lone Chimney Films represents, for them, their commitment to historical accuracy. They place great importance in using academic scholars to advise them and serve on their board.  Their purpose is to share history in an accurate way with study guides and teacher aids to accompany their films.  Beyond the classroom, they reach out to communities, providing lecturers to civic organizations and for historic events.

Such random events, like my search for an old journal and Ken's encounter with the words of a stranger in an old letter, can inspire and motivate.  My memories of going to the Stafford County Courthouse with my father when I was a little girl may very well be at the root of my decision to study and practice law.  As parents, teachers, and adults in general, every day we have the opportunity to strike a spark of interest and enthusiasm, or sadly, to miss that opportunity or even discourage a dream.  Poets, writers, athletes, actors, dancers, musicians, and other famous people inspire and motivate us, but so do every day people, and that should be reason enough to make each of us smile.

A very special personal letter to me
Lone Chimney Films was founded in 2003, but in 2006 it became a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization.  Their films have been shown on Public Television stations beyond Kansas, and schools and public libraries have benefited from the use of their films.  Neither Isaac B. Werner nor the woman writing her letter in Kansas could have imagined the lives their actions have touched.

Dr. Higley did not sit down to pen "My Western Home" with the intention of writing the Kansas State Song.  Harper Lee's father did not leave for the courthouse to try cases with a plan to set an example for his daughter's influential novel "To Kill a Mockingbird."  Every day millions of people influence the lives of others, and that should inspire all of us to be the examples we hope to be.  Someone just might be watching...


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two Hundred Forty Acres

Sign marks the turn 
It is true that the Home on the Range Cabin is a bit in the middle of nowhere, but somewhere isn't far away.  From Smith Center, Kansas, where we had spent the weekend, it was only about a fifteen minute drive on well paved roads except for a very short drive on well-packed dirt.  Department of Tourism signs marked the way until we reached the last turn-off, and an impressive stone sign could be seen well in advance of the turn-off.

Even if there were no particular destination it would be a nice drive through the rolling hills and valleys of northermost Kansas.  A double row of dry corn stalks along both sides of a fence stood like sentries atop a hill as we entered the dirt road.  As we gradually dropped down toward the river valley through which West Beaver Creek wanders, we saw an old bridge, now useful for hikers crossing the creek but once used by vehicles on a now-abandoned county road.

Historic Bridge for pedestrians

One more curve and we pulled into the parking area for Higley's "Home on the Range" Cabin.  If you missed last week's blog post you may want to continue reading the blog post about the cabin which follows below.  The cabin sits above a meadow next to West Beaver Creek.  Mark McClain explained to us when he showed us the grounds that time had change the course of the creek, so it was not exactly where it might have been in Dr. Higley's day, but the feeling of his nearly hidden home along the creek remains.

This special place was saved for future generations by Pete and Ellen Rust, who farmed the land from 1936 until Pete's death in 1986.  After his death, Ellen made plans for preserving this important piece of Kansas history through a trust.  Funds were raise for the restoration of the cabin (See Dr. Higley's Cabin, 2-9-2017 below.), and after the restoration was complete, the property was conveyed to a nonprofit organization.  The cabin and its 240 acres are owned and managed according to the terms of the trust Ellen established.



Plans for bridges, hiking and biking trails, and a natural amphitheater just south of the cabin were underway before Mother Nature caused some interruptions with flooding.  The plans, developed with the guidance of a landscape architect, remain the same, including concerts and other events onsite, as well as activities for young people, such as boy scouts and 4-H groups.

Cabin with bridge
Unlike the Ellen Rust Living Trust initially  established, the transfer to the People's Heartland Foundation as a 501 (c) (3) charity can exist into perpetuity and can also accept tax-deductible contributions from future donors.  This allows planning to extent far into the future, and members of the community and groups wishing to utilize the property are encouraged to participate in the planning with their ideas.  Volunteers willing to help stay ahead of Mother Nature are also welcome.



4-Hers have already contributed to the hiking trail with their Native Grasses Project.

Next week's blog will share more about what one man's dream can become when I blog about Lone Chimney Films, producer of "Home on the Range, The Story of America's Iconic Song."

Cabin at top in photo, creek, meadows, & trees below

Remember, the images can be enlarged by clicking on them!