Archives for April 2015

New York Times Writer Emulates John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in a Book to Please Dog Lovers

Cover image of Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America inspired a recent book by a dog lover named Benoit Denizet-Lewis, a 39-year-old author from San Francisco who has been writing for the New York Times Magazine since he was 26. Travels with Casey, My Journey through Our Dog-Crazy Country is a whimsical account of connecting with contemporary America—half a century after John Steinbeck hit the road with Charley—accompanied by the book’s titular canine and by Rezzy, an abandoned puppy found along the way. The story is a dog lover’s delight, long on love but short on the uneven edges that lovers of literalism continue to expose in Travels with Charley.

Writing for Dog Lovers, Not John Steinbeck Fans or Critics

Other writers have repeated the route taken by John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, none with greater attention to fiction-versus-fact than Bill Steigerwald, whose Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels with Charley’ caused consternation among Steinbeck fans for pointing out fibs and fudges in Steinbeck’s record of the 1961 journey he took with the handsome poodle belonging to his wife. Steinbeck set out to rediscover an America he felt he no longer understood, and bringing along Charley was an inspired afterthought. After discovering that Elaine Steinbeck also accompanied her husband much of the way—and that certain encounters reported by Steinbeck were embroidered or created from whole cloth—Steigerwald concluded that Travels with Charley was essentially a work of fiction and should be reclassified as such as in the Steinbeck canon. Academic apologists pushed back, but the dust-up didn’t seem to matter to the dog lovers in the Steinbeck crowd. Charley, who required emergency veterinary care while on the road, remains a hero to them, and Steinbeck is forgiven being a better novelist than journalist.

John Steinbeck set out to rediscover an America he felt he’d lost touch with, and bringing along Charley was an inspired afterthought.

Unlike Steigerwald, Denizet-Lewis isn’t interested in debunking myths, exposing errors, or judging merits. Motivated by behavior problems with his un-Charley-like male labrador, he decided to take a dog owner’s drive across an America that would, today, seem more alien to John Steinbeck than ever. When Denizet-Lewis began discussing plans with friends, Steinbeck’s name kept coming up in conversation and the Charley tie-in was added, like Charley himself when Steinbeck made travel plans more than 50 years ago. Less ambitious in purpose than Steinbeck’s project of moral discovery, the account of the journey Denizet-Lewis shared with Casey records the pains and pleasures of canine rather than human companionship. Steinbeck noted that no two journeys are ever alike (“a trip takes us,” not the other way around). Of our canine companions, observes Denizet-Lewis, “They own us, we don’t own them.”

Image of Benoit Denizet-Lewis with labrador Casey

Searches for America’s Soul Since Travels with Charley

Writers who have ridden the roads and rails to record the features of America’s changing identity since John Steinbeck’s odyssey with Charley include Joel Garreau (The Nine Nations of North America, 1981), William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, 1982) Gregory Zeigler (Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later, 2010), Steinbeck and Denizet-Lewis’s fellow Californian Bill Barich (Long Way Home, On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, 2010), and On the Road with Charles Kuralt (1995). Kuralt, the amiable TV journalist with a Sunday-morning perspective on America, expressed a self-evident truth about the sub-genre: “Even the best of them never got it all into one book, because the country is too rich and full of contradictions.”

Charles Kuralt, the amiable TV journalist with a Sunday-morning perspective on America, expressed a self-evident truth about the sub-genre: ‘Even the best of them never got it all into one book, because the country is too rich and full of contradictions.’

Like Denizet-Lewis, however, Steinbeck was a bleeding-heart dog lover, and canine characters people his most popular fiction. Examples? Pirate’s faithful entourage in Tortilla Flat, the bunkhouse mutt killed for the sin of getting old in Of Mice and Men, and the Joads’ family dog, the first member to die on the journey west in The Grapes of Wrath. Travels with Charley isn’t as sad as The Grapes of Wrath (Charley survives surgery), and Travels with Casey says less about Steinbeck than Dogging Steinbeck, though Denizet-Lewis, a Steinbeck fan, acknowledges Steigerwald’s book. But Denizet-Lewis’s focus is animal rights, not arguments about authors. Since dog lovers comprise a bigger audience than Steinbeck readers, that strategy (as Steinbeck might say) seems wise.

Ryder W. Miller inspired this review and provided the list of books written “in search of America” since John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Short Story by Roy Bentley: Sad-Proofing Through Oz

Composite image from The Wizard of Oz and an Eastern Kentucky funeralSad-Proofing

My brother doesn’t hear what I hear, the sound of a coal train going away from the hollow, leaving Neon to the south. TW is busy glad-handing Quiller Yontz, a stonecutter he wraps an arm around by a spray of chrysanthemums in the shape of a horseshoe, someone’s idea of humor since my father died by a stroke of bad luck. Thomas William Wolff, M.D., my older brother, is nodding at something Quiller says as if the world of limestone and sweat is always a work in progress. It’s his town, my brother, his river of light the rest of us are paying to go down, which makes the rest of us passengers if not cargo. I tell myself to picture something pleasing—like my boy Charlie who I took to see The Wizard of Oz last night. In movie light, Charlie had looked up at Dorothy Gale and Toto and the black-and-white-then-Technicolor-then-black-and-white-again world unfolding as he chomped away at his popcorn like any four-year-old.

There are bullies, usually men, who will stand in the parlor of a funeral home and speak in loud whispers that excuse everything. Adultery. Greed. Pettiness. Betrayal. Death. My brother TW Wolff is a bully who delivers babies; has for a decade now. He travels the hills, in all weather, and on horseback—he owns a car but says he gets places with a horse that cars can’t go. TW sees himself like that: a knight-errant hero hoisting himself into the saddle.

Heroes can be scary, too. When my brother looks in my direction, I lower my eyes from habit. He wears a vested suit, dark blue. The chain of his pocket watch and the fob fall against the blue as strands of gold not unlike the hair of Mother when she was young, and mine when I was a child. My brother’s hair is freshly cut. Bleached strings of cigarette smoke rise from the fingers of his hand. He looks back at Quiller. They lean in to what is being said by the circle of whisperers they’re part of by the gaudy horseshoe-spray of white flowers I suppose are mums.

Lipstick reds creep across the oriental rug in the parlor where I sit beside my older sister America. I call her Sissy or Sis. Our parents called her Merkie—America if she had faltered in some way. She’s broad-shouldered for a woman, my sister, and there is a tough patience to her even with her father in a coffin on a bier in the front of a room of flowers and standing men.

Merkie had been entrusted with my son after I was taken away to the sanitarium. Today, she has decided to leave him at the house with relatives from Whitesburg, saying that he’ll learn soon enough about death and dying. No one asked for my opinion, which is pretty normal.

The unreal man in the closed casket at the front of the room is my father too, but what I think and feel are beside the point since I’m on furlough from Eastern State for being crazy, or what TW gets to say is crazy. Three years is a long time to be gone from home, put away for something that might have gotten you thrown in jail for a year (if that) if you’d simply been born a man. A pissed-off woman scares people, it turns out. Scared people are dangerous people.

Our father burned to death in a field fire—I imagine he was cutting brush, working alone—but the details hadn’t been passed my way. I had never called Daddy anything but Daddy. I knew he doted on TW, what parent wouldn’t? But my brother called Daddy awful things behind his back. Mostly a sonofabitch—one quick word like a stake through the heart. He made no effort to meet Daddy even part of the way toward peace or to shoulder some portion of the guilt he asked our father to drag around after the death of our mother who insisted on carrying her last risky pregnancy to term when she had been told not to.

I don’t want to despair. And thoughts of my brother TW are little paths to despair.

I struggle again to retrieve the picture of my son Charlie at the Neon. It’s hard to do, but I’ve learned after hours of practice sitting alone. I may have always been suited to solitude to some degree, to flights of fancy and imagination, but what sparked my ability to conjure up the sounds of a creek or of a crow settling on a branch, was Daddy putting me in a closet and locking the door when he found out that I was pregnant by a married man.

The name of the game is: don’t look at anyone and try to decipher the meanings of words. Go for tone of voice and fill in your own meanings. I call it “sad-proofing.” Really, it’s an exercise in controlling the world’s ability to confuse or control. If the object of the exercise is to keep me from reacting to the cruelty around me, then I’m getting better. I’m “gaining skill,” as the doctor at Eastern State would call it. He would have two good-sized orderlies tie me to a chair, not tightly but secure, and then raise the chair over their heads and walk like litter bearers. He’d walk along to one side and rattle off questions like What are you thinking? What are you seeing? and ask that I close my eyes and picture a river in summertime and focus all my “reactive energy” on holding that scene in the mind.

At first the orderlies “floated” me like that for a few minutes, then for half an hour, and slowly I came to accept what was out my control. It frightened me at first. I begged them to stop. Once in a while they dropped me and I was bruised or forced to experience falling and not being able to catch yourself. But the doctor said that these exercises some might have termed torture would help, and they did. That’s the best thing I can say about my time at Eastern: I can mask wanting to react until I don’t even feel like I want to react anymore. The last sticking point seems to be if the picture in my mind is of my son Charlie and I can’t see him except as someone dissolving. It’s not hard not to react to that.

Of course the exercise is practiced differently in different settings. Say, in a closet. It turns out that if you don’t want to be present in the life you made for yourself or that others made for you, you can pass into a place of your own making. If you can’t, you hurt and strike out. Then of course they give you shock treatments and you forget everything for months at a time.

The exercise is like listening to the sound of a train passing when there is no train.

That’s what I’m doing as I sit staring at the oriental then at Daddy’s buffed-shiny coffin then at the smoke from the cigarettes in the hands of the men standing at the front of the room: getting control of a desire to get up and walk over to TW and hit him in the face and keep it up, ruining the flesh and the shadow of the man, until I draw blood or he falls lifeless on the floor.

Maybe Daddy knew how his son was and stayed out of his way. Maybe he knew about TW being a bully, and maybe he didn’t. Daddy hadn’t been all that loving himself.

My father had locked me in an upstairs closet with a slop jar of a thing to shit and piss in and only water (and not much of that) and then made me stay in there for three mostly-dark days, after which time I was let out and given a beating. I may have reminded Daddy of my mother to the extent that we had the same color hair and same mean temper, with or without provocation. I never knew what to make of either of them. My mother and father each lived off the fury of the other in a way that spoke to the world, and what it said wasn’t so much a set of words adding up to reasons for this or that but a feeling that, deep down, they nursed a grudge.

The men at the front of the parlor are taking seats like something is about to start.

TW is coming this way.

He casts his eyes on first this one then the next, stopping to pat a shoulder or arm, before he takes a seat beside Molly, his wife, who is seated next to America. When he sits, the music commences like the funeral director is taking his cues from TW, the King of Eastern Kentucky, and the rest of us had better get with it and do likewise or be prepared to face the consequences.

People tell me all the time, You’re so lucky to have a brother like TW. I think: Luck has nothing to do with it. I never say this out loud. What good would that do? And lots of folks have siblings they’re proud of or who love them enough not to close the car door on their hands. All those folks, though, would never last a day in Eastern: if they actually felt themselves being wheeled down a hall on a gurney after some mysterious treatment had just befallen them, they could probably handle the initial shock of it. People handle a lot of strange things. But the thing is, they don’t handle the total loss of control something like that announces. They just don’t. Because to handle that, you have to want to handle it. You need a reason to keep going. One overriding idea you’ll want to have in easy reach when you emerge from the fog of treatment.

And you can never, ever let go of that. Not even when you wake up the next day and feel a tenderness between your legs—down there—and know that something has happened to you.

Sure, I want free. I remember the first time I knew I wasn’t free. I was sitting in church with my father and mother and my older brother. The front of the church was brick and limestone. What I knew that they don’t tell you in school or even as part of the Sunday services is that my people had quarried the stone for that church. The cross on the stone was someone else’s contribution, but the limestone it was anchored to was a gift of the Wolff family. We weren’t the symbols of faith and redemption, sin and resurrection after death. We were the stone of Letcher County brought forth by living hands that bled from the work—or the men of the Wolff family were that stone. The women were the earth they tore it out of with their bare hands.

Of course my father’s hard, calloused hands allowed my brother’s hands to be soft.

Daddy invested everything in TW’s education so that no son of his had to dig stone.

I can think these things because I don’t say them out loud. I’d rather not have to think at all, which would be like driving a car in the hills before first light: you feel the road and hear the engine and the wheel is in your hands and no amount of luck of thinking makes what happens, happen. You make it happen. The headlights are on or off because you turn them on or leave them off. And without thinking. You, for sure, don’t think: I’m a Wolff and Wolffs are the ones who bring up the limestone that builds towns in the middle of nowhere. You just drive. Pretty soon you’re at a house where they have in hand the folding money and coins they exchange for something perishable. Eggs. Butter. Milk. Cheese. You don’t think about delivering what folks need that day and the next, you just do it. And, sooner or later, it’s who you are.

I’m not free. But I don’t dwell on it. With any luck I might get free at some point.

I might borrow back my canary-in-a-coal-mine yellow Model A Ford and head out for some exotic place in one of the directions of the Cross of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.

Someone who loves my brother—his wife Molly Wolff—is patting his leg then leaving her hand on his thigh. Someone who knows TW for who and what he is. Someone who has interceded on my behalf recently so that I might take my son to see The Wizard of Oz.

I can’t hear what she is saying, but I’m sure it has something to do with how he should behave toward someone weaker and less fortunate. For years, Molly has been a buffer between TW and the rest of Neon. She seems sure of what she’s doing. But she may never know what it’s like to be the focus of his controlling nature to the point where one life is taken from you and another handed back. So far, she appears to have no agenda other than to see that kindness prevail once in a while. I understand her trying to make being married to a powerful man, to this powerful man, something she doesn’t have to make excuses for. The funny thing is that loving my brother Thomas might be seen as aiding and abetting the part of us that nurtures fear to get what it wants. Maybe Molly is asking TW who sent the horseshoe of chrysanthemums and if referencing luck in that way is someone “trying to rub it in” with regard to Daddy’s accident. Whatever the answer, if that is what she’s asking, TW has made no effort to have it removed.

And if he wanted it gone, it would be gone.

A swath of flowers is at the head of a freshly-dug grave in the cemetery above the Junction, almost as many flowers as I recall seeing around the casket. I say “almost” because the horseshoe isn’t there. What I haven’t told you about TW is that even after standing up to resistance or disrespect, he practices standing up to the appearance of resistance or disrespect.

Obedience Harlow is standing to my right during the final remarks graveside. Beady, as she likes to be called, keeps looking up at first one then another man. She’s a few years younger than I am, and it’s clear that she’s on the prowl. “Hunting a man,” they used to call it and may still if things haven’t altered more than they appear to in the years I’ve been in the sanitarium.

When the preacher stops talking, Beady says, I like your dress, Abigail. Gray is your color. Then, most likely because I don’t speak right up, she adds: I’m sorry about your daddy.

Beady and I went to school together as far as she went. She dropped out before graduation. Married a miner. Divorced or he died—I can’t remember just then which is the case.

Beady has never been part of the better circle. Maybe, like most women her age, she hasn’t given up hopes of joining those ranks. She is dressed in a off-white dress that doesn’t hide her best features. Has on the sort of shoes that require thought to walk in, especially on a hill.

That’s something you can never understand if you haven’t been a child of privilege: not caring what others think but dressing and acting as if you do care. TW is an expert in matters like these. A veteran liar, some would say. Whoever sent the horseshoe of mums might say that.

I take Beady’s arm and say Thank you. Then I ask, Are you going to the house?

I’m talking a woman of a certain age now. Rejection staggers us, but we get up and go on. She looks for a moment as if she’s about to say yes or of course but stops herself, and then she asks if I think it’s all right if she comes. Like I could give permission. I tell her I’ll ask my brother and let go of her arm and start to walk over to where TW and Molly are standing.

I know to wait for TW to stop looking down into the open grave.

He looks into my face, and then I see he has actually been crying.

What is it? he asks in a taut voice that says he wants not to get upset more than is necessary. I recognize trying to hold yourself together. I say, Beady asked to come to the get-together, and then I point to her standing where I left her. But just now she’s talking to a man and seems occupied. Quiet and stillness fragrance the fall air over and around Daddy’s grave—or it may be the various perfumes mixing under cedars and pines that shade the family cemetery.

My brother wipes his eye and looks in Beady’s direction. In the light of the hillside her red hair glows more than I had noticed. She has a nice figure—for her age, as they say.

TW assumes whatever it is men assume about women like Beady, like me, and then speaks. Let me help you down the hill, he says and takes my arm. Molly is beside him. My sister-in-law is wearing the sort of sensible shoes that don’t call for the careful steps Beady’s shoes require. Molly smiles in my direction like I know something she isn’t saying because she doesn’t have to, and then the three of us walk down the hill to where the cars have been left.

I am afraid of my brother. I was afraid of my father, too. Each night I was in that closet, he would come to the door and listen. I would hear footsteps then breathing through the thin pine closet door. Daddy did what he could to keep me from knowing that he cared about whether I lived or died. With Daddy in the ground, the clock is ticking on my furlough.

I had feared him, my father, but heard him worrying certainty in those moments he stood listening. Cruel men rule over us, shaping a world we barely recognize. We take their hard or soft hands as Molly takes TW’s on the way down the hill.

We tell ourselves it’s to keep from falling and being seen as weak and less than beautiful.

Strength and beauty have nothing to do with it.

At Eastern there is an attendant named Butch. A colored man, Butch keeps to himself. An outsider among outsiders. Sometimes they send him to bring me to the day room or cart me here or there on the locked ward. And often enough that he seems to have gotten used to me or enough so that we speak. He doesn’t hold forth about the world, not like I’ve heard most men do, but he’ll report the time of day or where we are in the calendar year that I take for a small kindness. He may know that an outsider lives and dies on those kindnesses.

The last thing Butch said to me the day TW picked me up from the hospital stayed with me. Butch said, Watch yourself in the world, Miss Wolff,  like he knew better than I did what can be taken from you. And with little warning. Often by someone who didn’t need to act that way but did so because the opportunity presented itself. Butch is about as close to a protector as I have, but I won’t think too much about that today. I’ll just do what I’m told for now. Until I can see my way clear to get some distance. I know better than to think I’m Dorothy Gale and blessed with Hollywood good fortune, but I know a few things about men and their Emerald cities.

Read Roy Bentley’s short story “Blood Memory.”

Appalachian Mountains Cabinet of Curiosities: Poem By Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of Appalachian-Mountains cabinet of curiosities

The Wonder Cupboard

On The Appalachian Soul, an exhibit by REsolve Studios

Small doors of the “Victorian Brain” open to red, lathed handles
on inverted bread-pan drawers. Nothing rises but nostalgia’s one
windup tune. Take old books, journals. Add a message, tiny bottle.

Presto! A shelf full as a trick hat. A box that talks. Scattered letters,
numbers hang. In cursive almost obsolete, a jigsawed word, Home.
Wood paddles recall days when dread beasted teachers’ closets.

A kneeling child fingers a cubbyhole for its marble, its brass bead.
She fondles aquarium stones, wishes for rainbows, forests, peace.
These, the wonders, should fill her life, so she pockets the marble.

From the birdhouse skyline no birds preach. A veteran’s boot,
recycled, is a small lamp base. Search for a way out of coal mines,
radiation in Southern Ohio. Find instead a Lincoln-head penny,

a toy. A plastic guitar pick. From a tree limb to manifold pipes
Illusion fumes onto a screen a future Martian-orange and desolate,
distressed as a photograph grieved by acid. In such a landscape

the single blue chip like a spring sky breathes mirage and hope.
A woman of light floats in a photograph on the wall. Teach them,
the children, to live. There’s wood, light, the guitar pick. Behold!

Blood Memory: Short Story By Roy Bentley Set in Southern Appalachia

Image of Southern Appalachian creek baptism, circa 1940

Blood Memory

My farrier wants to bring his handcuffs. My sister Abby is on furlough from Eastern State Hospital and has to be taken back. And the likelihood is that she will fight going. If she weren’t so explosive or hadn’t shot at a man with a .45, running him up a telephone pole to escape her, we might not have to be talking handcuffs. I tell him I’ll let him know. I’m not sure yet about the timing of any attempt to return her to Lexington. Daddy has only been in the ground a few days, and I’m not sure when would be a good time. I do know that I’ll need help, however.

Joe Samuelson is the last of his family trained to do the work he does. Joe lives in a house I provide and takes care of my mare Irish Dancer. He has a talent for getting people to tell him things. His wife Tarfia is our maid. Joe also has a brother-in-law who has been keeping an eye on my sister Abigail at Eastern State. I pay Joe a stipend on top of his usual salary for work like this, and he’s worth every Lincoln-head cent. Joe is amazing, especially given that the guy only has one arm (which is too bad, but I did the amputation myself and so I know it could not have been helped). Abby may have seen mistreatment, judging by her condition since I brought her back on furlough for the funeral, but that mistreatment is likely only the usual unkindness common in asylums in the South. Staff are kept in check with Joe’s help. I don’t worry a great deal, though Abby has been in the care and keeping of Eastern State for several years. We’re in the stables. Joe’s red hair shines like firelight in the dim barn as I follow him to curry Dancer. The stables are shadowy. If I were a student at the University of Kentucky, as I was not all that long ago, a student who taught grade school and was bettering himself by taking literature courses, I might say the stables wear night robes. I might think it, but I’d never say it out loud.

Dancer is in the middle stall. Joe opens a red halved-door on black iron hinges and swings it wide. The air swills soft hinge sounds. My horse knows me. She comes over to have her head scratched and to nudge my right hand to see if I’ve brought her an apple, which I normally do. I scratch the smudge of a blaze in the center of her head as Joe begins his work.

Joe and I don’t say anything, which makes me think that our relationship is one based on a series of rituals and cues like those Dancer and I share. He doesn’t need me in here right now, Joe, and I should excuse myself and let him work, saying that I’ll be at the house and maybe he’d like to stop up, but I take some time before I pat Dancer’s stare and turn to leave.

Joe is as close to a friend as I have, but what passes between us is mostly of a business nature. A hundred years ago in Kentucky a quarter of the population owned men like Joe. Free blacks even owned slaves themselves. The Louisville Examiner would have brimmed with anti-slavery invective I’d most likely have agreed with whether I defended it or not. And eastern Kentucky was where John Gregg Fee established anti-slavery churches and schools before they ran him out of the state in 1859 after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Maybe it’s a kind of blood memory, the way I see things, but it’s in the history too. Kentucky has always been a house divided when it comes to Negroes. The one-drop rule is the custom but an intelligent man—especially a doctor in 1940—knows the lie. Blood is blood.

I’ve read Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, but I’ve also read Marcus Garvey who just died this past summer. I’ve gone to Louisville and seen the musical Show Boat where a husband pricks his finger and swallows a drop of his mixed-race wife’s blood to avoid a charge of miscegenation. I see hypocrisy and try to live with it without making myself sick.

Joe isn’t talking until he stops brushing my horse. His empty half-sleeve flutters.

So, bring the handcuffs? he asks.

I can report from ten years of brief conversations that Joe sees the bigger picture: how Dancer is essential to my being able to see patients in bad weather because the roads—where there are roads—are primitive. Rudimentary. Both of us believe in horses and don’t want to give up that connection to a past of animal and man working together on mornings when coal smoke floats in the valley like the first breath of a newborn in winter in a wood-heated cabin. Each of us is fond of a good road. We have had that conversation, agreeing there are things about mountain roads that don’t meet the requirements of a road: Creek beds. Rivulets. Paths through the underbrush. Joe knows what it takes these days: A serviceable horse. A good listener who can keep his mouth shut. A pair of handcuffs.

I say, Better to have them and not need them.

. . . . .

I’m a mountain doctor who was first a teacher. Grade school. Quentin Wolff was my daddy. And according to John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746, a 24-sheet folding map (John Rocque handled the surveying and John Pine engravings considered among the best examples of 18th century British cartography), my great-grandfather Benjamin Cann Wolff grew from infancy to boyhood to manhood in a flyblown bar-and-bordello by the Thames called The Paradise Hotel. Ben Cann first came into Kentucky with Daniel Boone around 1775 just after the Siege of Boonesborough and Boone’s court-martial and acquittal. Reynolds Wolff, Ben’s son, carried a copy of the John Rocque map of London on his person for years, unfolding it to point to the section of Georgian London where his father grew up.

That’s where Paradise is, he said—or so my father Quentin reported.

The story goes, Ben Cann worked ships that sailed between the Colonies and England.

He signed on as a stevedore in the port of Charleston. Why my great-grandfather then journeyed from Charleston to North Carolina where he met Boone is anyone’s guess, but the decision resulted in his being in attendance at Boone’s forced departure from Boonesborough. The two were together, thereafter, in Kah-ten-tah-the—Wyandot for the area between the Ohio and Licking rivers. And Ben Cann Wolff was not a young man when he fought off the Shawnee. Stories depict Ben Wolff as lanky but a man of surprising ardor. His lethality was not his chief grace, however. Ben Cann was someone with a full purse and a talent for enlisting aid who oversaw the clearing of land that became the Junction and much of the original construction in that part of Letcher County. He built the town of Neon or caused it to be built, the stone to be quarried and virgin timber felled. (The girth of many of the trees brought down was said to measure a dozen standing men’s outstretched arms and hands touching in a circle around the base.) The work was done by the men Boone left him or, more accurately, who elected to follow anyone but the infamous alcoholic frontiersman when he moved on to Missouri. As a result, Boone’s men became his men. My great-grandfather’s eldest, my grandfather Reynolds Wolff, took it from there and finished Neon, handing off to my father Quentin who handed off to me. You could say the Wolffs know how to make something of what is handed them. You could say that some Wolffs take care of things that no one credits them for having taken care of.

. . . . .

What do I see if I step out from my office and look up and down the main street in the town my grandfather built and my father kept running? I see a town open at both ends, telephone poles nailed against the gray of future. Across the street from my office in Wolff’s Drugstore display window I see stair-stepped copies of Life and the Louisville Examiner—not my idea, but it may be a splendid notion for all I know—and a poster promising “Miss Neon Contest, First Prize One Ton of Coal from the Elkhorn Coal Company.” Farther up the street I can make out the white door to the offices of my lawyer French Hawk, Esq., who worked out a loan for me (and Molly) to build the new house, a loan paid out from my sister’s portion of “disbursements for rents, money received from sale or royalties collected from coal mined,” a loan arranged by the Letcher County Court after they declared Abby an Incompetent. The loan was for the entire cost of our house: $10,000. Mine #2 alone brought in that much a year. Having someone declared an Incompetent has its benefits, though the doing of it is another thing entirely.

Most nights on evening hillsides above Main Street, I see generations of miners and other workingmen in coveralls strip and wash up for dinner. Inside the row houses I know that biscuits steam and gravy from hog meat scents the cramped rooms. I’m welcome in most of the houses.

In town, someone may drop a nickel in a red Coca-Cola machine and slide his purchase out and up and dislodge its cap with a fizz-pop. Railroad men in from the west of the state might be walking the wood sidewalks to the Wolff House where they bed down with whatever lonely woman they can. Maybe I’d have been better served to be a railroad man, looking at the time in the dim and whispering sweet lies about Lexington and the land beyond the hills of Letcher County, but I was born a Wolff and as such there is a great deal more expected of me. I’m the miracle man for my people, an FDR with working legs and a horse named for the country they wish their forefathers had never left and what they do on Saturday nights to forget that life is hard and brief. I don’t say I’m a good man. I’ve done some good.

My sister Abigail is my cross to bear for the simple reason no one else can.

Abby has a history of violence. As her older brother I learned not to turn my back on her nascent rage. Her first marriage ended in divorce after she held a knife to the throat of her then-husband M.O. and took one good swipe at ending his life. M.O. Strong was just what his name said he was—a strapping six-footer with oversize forearms and a threatening manner—but M.O. failed to keep his attention focused on his wife after a quarrel about the temperature of some scrambled eggs she had served. He had gotten up from the table and stormed out of the kitchen. She’d followed—the story was told by their daughter Rose who had gone for help after her father fell back bleeding. According to Rose, M.O. must not have seen Abby approach because the much shorter woman somehow got the drop on the larger man on a set of stairs. Whatever the case, she sliced his throat with a kitchen knife. What saved her was that M.O. was brought to me. I stitched up a laceration that had missed any significant blood vessels and hadn’t penetrated the trachea. After 17 silk sutures I told M.O. that if he wouldn’t press charges I’d make sure that my family allowed him a divorce and threw in the cost of the materials and labor for a new house.

I recall that he sat listening, shamed by his failure to mount anything like a response or afraid the story might be attached to him like a bad haircut or a rumor judged to be more or less true and as hard to fend off as a riotous, much younger wife. M.O. got up from the examination table. Dressed in his bloody clothes. Leaving my office, he said, Sounds about right.

That was not the first (nor was it the last) time Abby answered an injury.

Nor was there one in particular that alerted our family to the possibility she might do harm beyond what even a family with considerable resources can quiet. The next year when she ran Dan Wright up a phone pole and emptied a magazine of forty-five-caliber ammunition in his direction, there was little to be done but commit her. Either that or jail since she was reloading when a bystander struck her with a handy river stone and knocked her unconscious.

Not long after Abby had been committed to Eastern I was alone in my office following the particularly tough delivery of a miner’s first child. I was thinking of our mother and how she read to us from the Bible. I can see how afraid we were—America, our other sister, Abby and me—and I could feel myself stiffen at the description of the End Times, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and some last battle on the plains of the Holy Land our mother said would involve so much bloodshed that the blood would be to the level of the bridles of the horses.

. . . . .

The day that I tell Abby to think about getting her things together, to head back to Eastern, begins with her coming down to breakfast with her housecoat open and nothing on under it. And the flash of her reminds me of a time when, like most women, she had a hopeful womb and ambitions to marry.

Molly is serving breakfast and motions for Abby to close her robe. Abby closes the robe and sits, saying, I am ready like she is going to rise and go to the movies with me and Molly and catch a new show at the Neon. Because I want to fill my head with something other than my sister this morning I try and recall the movie I saw them lettering on the marquee this morning. It stars Henry Fonda—I remember that much—and that the Henry Fonda movie replaces The Wizard of Oz, which I’m told sold out several nights last week. I can’t think of the most recent movie’s title, but it will come to me.

After we eat, Abby heads upstairs. Peacefully. No hoopla. No ruckus. I’m not buying it. I tell Molly what I’m planning. I say, I’ll drive her over to Lexington, drop her, and drive back this evening. And Molly nods. Says, Whatever you want to do.

I kiss my wife on the head and smell the ashes from the morning’s cook-fire in her hair.

I wonder if the clothed me will ever get accustomed to the naked me Molly has always exposed. Outside, I head to fetch Joe who sees me coming and waves with his good arm and waits, wiping that hand on a rag that hangs from the belt at his waist. It’s early, a chill in the air and coal smoke drifting across the valley. My friend the farrier will have been working for hours already. When he isn’t doing work for me, he forges knives and shovels for other people in town.

I see Joe headed out to meet me. Wiping his hand, he has guessed at most of what’s to come and takes up a position at the end of the walkway by the Model-A Ford, Abby’s old car.

I hear the mewing of kittens somewhere nearby. In the vicinity of the stables.

The sound is as light as a wasp’s nest.

Out of nowhere I remember the title of the movie: The Grapes of Wrath.

At the end of the walk Joe holds open the car door for Abby who is now walking like she is walking to the gallows: head down, her gray Samsonite suitcase in both hands and bouncing against her legs as she steps. I’m a step or two behind. The soles of her shoes click on the paving stones on the walk. Let me take that, I say and she releases the suitcase handle.

I say, You remember Joe, don’t you? He’s going to drive us today.

Abby stops and looks back at me. Her look asks what is happening to her.

Joe steps up and snaps one handcuff on her wrist and then steps back—my cue to step up and pull Abby’s arm back so he can snap the other cuff into place.

I drop the suitcase. Move toward Abby. I put my hands on her shoulders.

My sister is stunned but not so stunned she doesn’t react. She spins around and kicks me. I feel my strength leaving: she’s landed a blow to my groin. Out of the edge of my vision I see Joe take hold of Abby’s pale arm and turn her and bring the arm up and snap the other handcuff into place. The skin of his hand is the color of tea and he has hold of Abby’s white-white arm as he deposits her on the seat. Joe is this fellow with one arm who is performing the equivalent of a circus trick: putting the custom-made iron handcuffs on Abby while I try and get to my feet, making sure Abby doesn’t even bump her head, then stepping back as if to announce the completion of his miracle as he closes the door on her side with confident authority.

I manage to get up and put Abby’s bag in back under the rumble seat.

I go around to the driver’s side where Joe is holding the car door.

I slide in. I say, Actually, I’ll be driving. Joe isn’t going.

Abby is moving in the seat. You’re both black bastards, she says.

I take note of what she’s doing and start the car and begin to drive away.

Abby has her stockinged legs up and is kicking the windshield. With her hard-soled shoes—the kicks are having an effect. I hear a crack as the windshield spiders and then lets go and we are sitting in (and covered by) glass. The seats are covered in shards. I pull over.

Joe is there, opening the door to raise Abby from the mess. He scoops her up.

Standing handcuffed by the car, Abby doesn’t so much look at me as stare through me. Her dress is raised. She’s a mess. Stockings and garters are visible. I move to her.

This time, as she tries to knee me, I catch her leg and squeeze. Hard.

You sonofabitch, she says. And then she spits at me.

I feel the wet.

Thoughts of doing her harm tambourine in my head. I say, Joe, you take Miss Neon here to the stables. I’ll see what I can do about rustling up an automobile. And if she gives you any trouble, tie her legs. Abby has cut her thigh on a piece of windshield. Blood is flowing down the front of her right leg. I don’t think about blood memory or slavery or Kentucky’s role in the War of Northern Aggression, then I do. Joe is walking Abby to the stables. She’s going with him, twisting every so often as she goes. I’m trying to think what to say when I get to the house and on the phone to Caudill’s Ford as I wipe the spit from my face.

Read and hear Roy Bentley’s short story “The War of Northern Aggression.”

The Morning After a Perfect Storm: Narrative Poem by Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of a perfect storm approaching the state of Ohio

After a Great Wind

In the too-early darkness, candlelight flickered
our shadows up the stairs. Beneath open windows
we lay bare, sweating between sheets and dreams.

Transformers exploded in fireballs. The storm
peeled roofs like lids of tinned sardines. We lost
homes beneath old oaks and shallow maples.

We wake to a wounded city. Empty refrigerators.
Eat raw. Board up what we must. Make our way
through a jungle-green maze of limb and canopy.

Together we heave lighter branches to the curbs,
toss in twigs. Tree trunks that crushed our cars
we leave for huge machines to grind the wood,

spit sawdust. Cautiously we move, and watch
for the power lines’ fanged bite. After sundown
we lie uneasy, to sleep, day animals in the night.

New Music Continues: Bill Frisell’s “John Steinbeck” Commissioned by Brooklyn Rider String Quartet

Image of jazz guitarist and John Steinbeck composer Bill Frisell

Passionate about sound and programmed to appreciate performance, John Steinbeck took piano lessons as a boy, listened to classical records when he wrote, and liked new music, old music, chamber music, opera, and jazz as an adult. American musicians—including a contemporary string quartet group—have remained passionate about John Steinbeck in return. Steinbeck’s spirit has animated folk songs by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, inspired operas by Carlisle Floyd and Ricky Ian Gordon, even motivated the composition of recent organ music by Franklin D. Ashdown and Lothar Bandermann. Such eclecticism seems especially appropriate for an author who sang in the church choir as a child, loved Bach and Broadway equally, and wrote an early, unpublished novel called “Dissonant Symphony.”

Image of Brooklyn Rider string quartetFor the latest addition to the growing body of music inspired by John Steinbeck, applaud  Brooklyn Rider, a young string quartet with Steinbeckian crossover audience appeal. In 2014 Brooklyn Rider commissioned new chamber music works from a group of distinctively different composers including Bill Frisell, an acoustical guitarist blessed with an expert back-up band and a big following in the world of jazz. Each composer selected for Brooklyn Rider’s recording project was encouraged to “look outside the sphere of music” in writing a short chamber music piece inspired by a person, place, or idea of the composer’s choice. Bill Frisell picked John Steinbeck. The resulting CD, Brooklyn Rider Almanac, is an example of contemporary recorded music at its best—clear as sunlight on the sea, full of color and character, and as varied in style, feeling, and form as the books of John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only artistic figure chosen by a composer for the project (Daniel Cords picked the painter Keith Haring), or the only author: Aoife O’Donovan celebrates William Faulkner in a fiddling romp through the mind of Faulkner’s character Quinten Compson, Benjie’s brother in The Sound and the Fury. But Bill Frisell’s piece—titled simply: “John Steinbeck”—is the last cut on the album and stands out as the shortest, and the most surprising, of the 13 works recorded. Partisans of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner at the time accused Steinbeck of being a sinplistic sentimentalist while praising books such as The Sound and the Fury for hard-edged modernism and challenging complexity. Did Bill Frisell write his tough little string quartet as a belated musical rebuttal to Steinbeck’s critics? “John Steinbeck” certainly tests the ear and requires effort to understand, more like Faulkner than Steinbeck, who refused to write for the critics or to criticize fellow writers who did.

Cover image from The Brooklyn Rider Almanac CDI think the Salinas Valley native who listened to records while writing The Grapes of Wrath in his California Coast Range retreat would get the point of Bill Frisell’s peak-and-valley piece, chamber music inspired by an artist who agonized and rejoiced with the characters he created in a small room high in the mountains, observing monkish solitude as Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms played in the background. You decide. Close your door, shut your eyes, and listen to Brooklyn Rider Almanac from start to finish, then repeat the last piece on the album as you contemplate the personal context and social sense that inform The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck was a sociable loner, a pretty good description of a string quartet player—or a jazz performer like Bill Frisell, creating a printed score for recorded chamber music instead of improvising as usual. Like a string quartet’s lead violinist, Frisell is the first among equals when performing with his group. In “John Steinbeck” he communicates the lonely predicament of a working novelist who, like a composer putting sound on paper, has only himself to praise or blame, peak-or-valley, before the record ends.

From Atlanta, Georgia to a Deadbeat Dad’s Ambiguous End: Narrative Poem by Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of deadbeat dad in narrative poem

Dead Man’s Petition

With a last what-the-hell round, a chaser
of self-pity, he drove to Atlanta, Marathon,

parts south. His ex-wife didn’t see him go.
He’d been lost since the factory closed.

And he owed a year’s back child support.
From Ohio, his decades as deadbeat dad

were untraceable under an alias, living
underground in a work-for-cash economy.

Twenty-odd years later, and beseeching
the same county judge who’d declared him

deceased, he remembers those days past.
His ex doesn’t want him alive—can’t afford

to refund the Social Security spent long ago
for their children. Life got away from him,

he says. But he doesn’t account for much.
Doesn’t visit. Defeat transfixes him again.

Then the gavel pounds. The man stands down.
No one buys back time. A heart in purgatory,

he wanders away. The children are grown.
His ex is getting along. She says he’s better

left a citizen of the Republic of the Undead.

Did John Steinbeck Foresee Reality TV When Writing The Winter of Our Discontent?

Composite image of The Winter of Our Discontent and reality TV

What does today’s reality TV have to do with John Steinbeck? More than you may think—unless you’ve read The Winter of Our Discontent, set in a remote Long Island village 65 years ago. Now even more than then, it’s fair to say that America has an obsession with celebrity culture and the concept of “instant celebrity.” In its current form this obsession is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of the get-rich-quick impulse dramatized by Steinbeck in the novel: do almost nothing and reap instant rewards.

Now even more than then, it’s fair to say that America has an obsession with celebrity culture and the concept of ‘instant celebrity.’

Nothing better expresses this drive than the popularity of reality television shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Shows such as these feature contestants who do little more than lie, scheme, and debase themselves for a chance at instant riches and fame.

Defenders of reality television often point to series like American Idol and America’s Next Top Model as shows that do reward genuine talent. However, even these programs seem obliged to showcase the worst side of human behavior. Just think of the tone deaf-contestants from American Idol for an unpleasant reminder of people desperately flailing towards immediate fame and fortune while the world laughs at their failures.

John Steinbeck predicted this trend in The Winter of Our Discontent, his last novel. Let’s take a brief look at the plot, which concerns Ethan Hawley, a struggling grocer whose family was once one of the most prominent in town.

John Steinbeck predicted this trend in ‘The Winter of Our Discontent,’ his last novel.

Ethan’s people earned their prominence the old-fashioned way: working hard for generations and honestly investing the money they made from fishing, trade, and land. However, Ethan’s father squandered the family fortune with well-meaning but ill-considered plans, and despite his Harvard degree, Ethan has come down in the world.

Although Ethan is honest at heart, he feels the sting of the town’s judgment towards his fallen state. He suffers acutely from the disappointment of his family, especially his children, who view him as little more than an antiquated joke. He is a modern man in pain because of the conflict between a noble past and a bleak future.

One of the last bastions of decency in the community, Ethan is surrounded by people who have adapted to the times: they have built their success on scheming, lies, and betrayal. In the course of the novel he betrays his morals and his honesty to gain the power and financial success craved by his status-conscious wife and their teenage children, a boy and a girl. John Steinbeck’s analogy is quite clear: the Hawley family situation represents the post-World War II transformation of America from a thrifty, hardworking society into a dishonest consumer-culture.

Steinbeck’s analogy is quite clear: the Hawley family situation represents the post-World War II transformation of America from a thrifty, hardworking society into a dishonest consumer-culture.

As a result, The Winter of Our Discontent was admired in Europe and attacked by critics in the USA. Peter Lisca, a leading scholar friendly to Steinbeck, went so far as to describe the book as “undeniable evidence of the aesthetic and philosophical failure of [Steinbeck’s] later fiction” when it was published in 1961.

However, Lisca changed his tune in the 1970s, explaining that Steinbeck had skillfully grasped the essence of the emerging American condition, something readers seemed unaware of at the time, despite the radio-payola and TV game-show scandals permeating the news when Steinbeck wrote The Winter of Our Discontent.

Though Ethan Hawley refects a communal heritage under attack from within, his son Allen—a cheater who believes in looking out for Number One—represents the end result of the moral degradation underway in the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s. Allen’s behavior and beliefs continue to astonish readers of The Winter of Our Discontent, for they accurately and eerily predict our contemporary cult of instant celebrity and the unethical and unscrupulous means by which media fame is often achieved.

Though Ethan Hawley reflects a communal heritage under attack from within, his son Allen—a cheater who believes in looking out for Number One—represents the end result of the moral degradation underway in the popular culture of the late 1950s and 1960s.

When we meet him, Allen is something of a lazy lay-about who constantly talks about finding a way to earn a spot on a national quiz show. By the end of the novel, he actually achieves this goal by doing something neither the reader or his father would ever have imagined within his capacity: writing an award-winning essay on the theme of patriotism.

Surprised but gratified, Ethan is proud of his son until a contest runner-up reveals that Allen’s essay is a complete sham. Every single word was stolen from other writers.

When Ethan confronts him, Allen admits that he feels no guilt in his actions because he believes the ends justify the means: committing an immoral or unethical act is worth the reward of success and celebrity. In fact, he believes that he’s just doing what everybody else in Eisenhower-era America does to get ahead—lie, steal, and cheat their way to the top.

Allen admits that he feels no guilt in his actions because he believes the ends justify the means: committing an immoral or unethical act is worth the reward of success and celebrity. In fact, he believes that he’s just doing what everybody else in Eisenhower-era America does to get ahead—lie, steal, and cheat their way to the top.

Despite or because of immoral plans of his own, hatched in secret to satisfy his family’s demands for money and status, Ethan is especially upset that Allen’s actions are rewarded when Allen’s dishonesty is revealed. The essay contest runner-up admits that Allen’s deception will be kept under wraps to avoid embarrassment to the sponsors—a reminder of how the TV game show and pay-to-play radio scandals of the time were handled, to John Steinbeck’s dismay.

Today his point is even more obvious. Written in sadness and anger, The Winter of Our Discontent predicts what John Steinbeck viewed as a moral dead-end for America, one that he saw as unavoidable if left untreated. Allen’s success-at-any cost drive to win is perfectly mirrored by the vapid preening and desperate pleading for 15 minutes of ill-gotten fame by reality-show celebrities. And Americans are still watching.

Open Season on the American Experience: Poem By Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of hunter during open season, an American experience


Silhouetted by a sun about to fail,
this man takes aim. On the other side
his face must gleam, as a cartridge
case, ejected, tumbles wingless.

Skyward. Into clouds. Gray eyes
focus from the shade of a wide brim.
Sweat-curled hair spills from the hat
back, down his neck and collar.

The rifle butt narrows to its dark
barrel as a fist to an eager finger.
Clouds explode. Birds scatter.
His target convulses. Spins away.

In his holster a pistol sits snug,
walnut grip and trigger ready
for the short shot. To make sure,
he’ll cock again. Fire. And again.

At first, only the moon’s flushed
face begins to fade. An eye
rising into less light. Then
the red mist sudden, and fine.


Catching Up with Steinbeck In My Time Machine: Franklin Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, And Germany’s Third Reich

Page 1 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin RooseveltPage 1Page 2 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin RooseveltPage 3 image of the telegram sent by writers Including John Steinbeck to Franklin Roosevelt

On November 16, 1938—three years before America formally entered the war against Germany—John Steinbeck joined 35 writers in urging Franklin Roosevelt to confront the Third Reich. Responding to the outrage known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, their telegram (shown here) recommended severing economic ties with Hitler’s regime, the equivalent of today’s sanctions against Iran. Signed by Steinbeck, George S. Kaufman, Pare Lorentz, Robinson Jeffers, and other writers known by Steinbeck, the message was one of many received by Franklin Roosevelt urging action against the Nazi regime. But this one meant more than most. The signers were all working artists at the whim of a domestic audience that, as today, was deeply divided, and powerful voices—including Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy, and the right-wing radio priest Charles Coughlin—opposed U.S. intervention on behalf of European Jews for economic, political, and racist reasons. As John Bell Smithback notes in his time-machine fantasy about the rise of the Third Reich and the telegram sent to Franklin Roosevelt, John Steinbeck and other progressives were correct in their assessment: Kristallnach was a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. When he signed his name, Steinbeck had yet to meet Franklin Roosevelt, but his work was already controversial, so his action took courage. John Bell Smithback’s imaginative account of the Kristallnach atrocity and Steinbeck’s public response is a timely reminder that Steinbeck’s instinctive sympathy for victims was profound and prophetic—and that 1938 was like 2015 in deeply disturbing ways. The Third Reich was new, The Grapes of Wrath was in manuscript, and John Steinbeck was in his thirties when the terrifying events of 1933 and 1938 transpired.—Ed.

Catching Up with Steinbeck in My Time Machine

The UPS deliver man has just dropped off one of those spiffy new portable time machines that everyone is talking about. I’ve nearly finished setting it up, but I’m not going to use it to take a trip into the future. Everyone seems to be doing that, but observing what a stinking mess the world’s in I’m going to have a look into the past to see if there are any comparisons to be made. Accordingly, I’ve set the dial for the year 1933, and lo . . . here I am in Berlin! The Reichstag building has gone up in flames and the Nazis are claiming it’s the work of foreign terrorists. Consequently, they’ve issued a Decree for the Protection of People and State that gives them sweeping new powers to deal with a so-called emergency. Déjà vu: didn’t we go through this kind of thing when a few men burned down our Twin Towers?

Déjà vu: didn’t we go through this kind of thing when a few men burned down our Twin Towers?

Fine-tuning my time machine, I see thousands of people being arrested and sent to a camp where guards are being taught terror tactics to dehumanize prisoners. I thought it might be Abu Ghraib or maybe Guantanamo, but no, this place is called Dachau. Back in Berlin, though the democratically elected president of the country is a man named Paul von Hindenburg, the Nazis have gone around him to pass the Enabling Act allowing Hitler to issue laws without the Reichstag’s approval. Déjà vu again as I’m reminded of the House and Senate going around our president to manipulate U.S. foreign policy by inviting foreign politicians to speak in Washington and by addressing threatening, perhaps treasonous letters to foreign governments warning them not to declare peace.

Déjà vu again as I’m reminded of the House and Senate going around our president to manipulate U.S. foreign policy by inviting foreign politicians to speak in Washington and by addressing threatening, perhaps treasonous letters to foreign governments warning them not to declare peace.

I take a moment to catch my breath, and as I inhale I detect the scent of burning books and see 40,000 people in the square at the State Opera to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of . . . .” Hitler’s Karl Rove stands on a platform gripping a microphone, his voice rising ever higher as he screams the names of writers banned by the Third Reich: “Heinrich Mann, Walter Benjamin, Bertholt Brecht, Max Brod, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque . . . .”

Hitler’s Karl Rove stands on a platform gripping a microphone, his voice rising ever higher as he screams the names of writers banned by the Third Reich.

Sigmund Freud is on the list; so are Gorki, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Andre Gidé, Karl Marx, Emile Zola, and Marcel Proust—”Und auch die amerikanische Schriftstellern, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck . . . .” A pillar of smoke rises over the square and sparks from books by hundreds of internationally acclaimed authors and poets, philosophers and rationalists, drift skyward. Ashes falling on my shoulders to remind me of Senator Joseph McCarthy, of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and of the American Library Association asserting that each year it receives hundreds of challenges to remove dangerous works from the shelves of American libraries. At the top of the current list are books about the imaginary childhood of a British boy named Harry Potter.

Sigmund Freud is on the list; so are Gorki, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Andre Gidé, Karl Marx, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck.

It is late, but the crowd seems reluctant to disperse. PR people put away their motion picture cameras and groups of tough-looking men and boys in brown-shirted uniforms slink off to beer cellars. Newsmen rush to their offices, and then there is a hush. I press a button and inch my time machine forward, eager to see how the events of the evening are received overseas. Thinking that a pyre this big would sound warning bells around the world, I anticipate outrage. But what is this? Except for the living writers who learned that their books had just gone up in smoke, there are few outside Germany expressing concern about what’s happened. Within Germany, it seems to be a case of “Who needs books when we have Joseph Goebbels?” I pause to ponder this failure of reason. Is it really so different today? “Who needs factual information when we have Roger Ailes?”

Except for the living writers who learned that their books had just gone up in smoke, there are few outside Germany expressing concern about what’s happened.

At this point everything becomes a blur of red, white and black, of symbols and banners and uniforms and parades. Martial music blasts from lampposts, and at dawn I stop at a boulevard café to have a look at the newspapers. The only one at hand is Völkischer Beobachter, Hitler’s paper. He owns the whole thing, lock, stock and barrel, much, I suppose, as Rupert Murdoch owns and controls media throughout the English-speaking world today. There are fear stories on every page, and if it’s not one crazy group accused of threatening the nation it’s another; raving anarchists, murderous communists, and stealthy homosexuals are around every corner. Judging from what I read, there are unseen forces everywhere conspiring to rip out the German soul. That’s the reason given for the new Law for Removing the Distress of the People and the Reich. In an instant, German Jews are stripped of their civil rights, and I note that the man behind the decree, the one who will provide the balm, is none other than the Leader himself.

In an instant, German Jews are stripped of their civil rights, and I note that the man behind the decree, the one who will provide the balm, is none other than the Leader himself.

A group of youths march by the café in wrinkled uniforms. I turn to the editorial page and am astonished. Beneath the screaming headline—“We Need A Fascist Government In This Country”—I read this: “We need a fascist government in this country to save the nation from the communists who want to tear it down and wreck all that we have built. The only men who have the patriotism to do it are the soldiers, and Smedley Butler is the ideal leader. He could organize a million men overnight.”

Smedley Butler? What in the hell is this? He’s not even German: he’s an American general in command of an army of 500,000 war veterans back in the United States.

The Nazi editorial explains the American connection: “We have got the newspapers. We will start a campaign that President Franklin Roosevelt’s health is failing. Everyone can tell that by looking at him, and the dumb American people will fall for it in a second . . . .” So says Gerald MacGuire, a Wall Street bond salesman and one of the financiers of a group known as the American Liberty League, a corporate cabal that includes the heads of General Electric, Goodyear Tire, Bethlehem Steel, DuPont, J.P. Morgan, and Ford. Praising the prescience of these America First! patriots, the Völkischer Beobachter refers with approval to the racist ravings of Father Coughlin, the popular radio commentator from Henry Ford’s hometown. It seems Germany had highly placed friends in the United States. Why am I so shocked, I ask, as I think of today’s EIB Network and Fox News, of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lars Larson, Bill O’Reilly, and the America First! Tea Party?

It seems Germany had highly placed friends in the United States. Why am I so shocked, I ask, as I think of today’s EIB Network and Fox News, of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Lars Larson, Bill O’Reilly, and the America First! Tea Party?

On the streets of Berlin people have lifted their arms in the Sieg heil salute, and I hear voices, thousands upon thousands, singing: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!“ I watch transfixed as German troops march into Vienna, and I hear the world’s silence. Three months later I see Nazi soldiers marching into Prague . . . and hear the world’s silence. Then, on the night of November 10, this message is posted from SS-Grupenführer Reihnard Heydrich to all German State Police Main Offices and Field Offices:

DATE: 10 November 1938

RE: Measures Against Jews Tonight

(a) Only such measures may be taken which do not jeopardize German life or property (for instance, burning of synagogues only if there is no danger of fires for the neighborhoods).

(b) Business establishments and homes of Jews may be destroyed but not looted. The police have been instructed to supervise the execution of these directives and to arrest looters.

(c) In business streets special care is to be taken that non-Jewish establishments will be safeguarded at all cost against damage.

As soon as the events of this night permit the use of the designated officers, as many Jews (particularly wealthy ones) as the local jails will hold are to be arrested in all districts—initially only healthy male Jews, not too old. After the arrests have been carried out the appropriate concentration camp is to be contacted immediately with a view to a quick transfer of the Jews to the camps.

What follows is a night of absolute destruction, later labeled Kristallnacht, the Night of Smashed Glass. Hitler Youth and the brown-shirted S.A. have destroyed 167 synagogues and shattered the windows of an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned shops and businesses. Throughout all of Germany, Austria, and Nazi-occupied Sudetenland, mobs are roaming the streets attacking Jewish residents in their homes. Although murder did not figure in the official directive, Kristallnacht will claim the lives of at least 91 Jews. Police records of the period document a high number of rapes and of suicides in the aftermath of the violence: a fine of one billion marks is to be levied, not upon the criminals, but upon the victims.

Although murder did not figure in the official directive, Kristallnacht will claim the lives of at least 91 Jews. Police records of the period document a high number of rapes and of suicides in the aftermath of the violence: a fine of one billion marks is to be levied, not upon the criminals, but upon the victims.

Outraged, a group of writers in the United States, John Steinbeck among them, sends a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him to sever economic ties with Nazi Germany. Unfortunately for history, no action will be taken by the administration in time to help the Jews. But I don’t need a time machine to tell me that.