March 2010: The dubious legality of targeting American jihadists, health care and history, and other observations

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION HAS AUTHORIZED THE TARGETED KILLING OF AN AMERICAN CITIZEN, the Muslim radical Anwar al-Awlaki (who was born in New Mexico), according to credible news reports (Los Angeles Times, Reuters), including one by Scott Shane in the New York Times buried at the bottom of page A12. This is a disturbing development, to say the least, and raises a number of troubling questions:

  • How does this decision, made in secret, conform to the rule of law? What is the legal framework for approving the killing of an American citizen? What of al-Awlaki’s due process civil rights as an American?
  • Has an arrest warrant for al-Awlaki been procured? Has he been indicted? Has the U.S. formally requested al-Awlaki’s extradition from Yemen, where he is believed to be hiding?
  • What is al-Awlaki’s legal status? Has he been designated an enemy combatant? Who made that decision and was there judicial review of it?
  • Who made the final decision to add al-Awlaki’s name to the targeted killing list? On what grounds? What evidence exists? Did President Obama formally approve this action?

If the rule of law means anything in the U.S., we should know the answers to all of these questions. The targeting of a U.S. citizen is apparently unprecedented. In the Times article Shane quotes a former senior legal official in Bush Administration who “said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.” It may be that al-Awlaki has become an operational Al Qaeda leader, as government sources suggest, but that shouldn’t automatically trump his legal rights. How can Eric Holder, the Attorney General, allow an American citizen to be, in effect, sentenced to death without a jury trial, etc.?

An Obama appointee, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, who had been highly critical of the Bush Administration’s tactics in the war on terror tactics, is now defending the practice of targeted killing. In a speech to the American Society of International Law, Koh rejected the notion that the U.S. was involved in unlawful extrajudicial killings and offered a justification for ignoring due process when going after what he called “high-level belligerent leaders”:

“…a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force. Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.

Despite some verbal pandering to the international law community (“…global leadership flows to those who live their values and obey the law and global standards”), Koh has nonetheless embraced the same expansive legal position advanced by the Bush Administration: there is a “global war on terror” and the U.S. has the widest latitude in how it pursues jihadists. The Obama Administration appears to have expanded this legal doctrine to allow the secret designation of American citizens as enemy combatants.

President Obama’s campaign promises included a pledge of transparency and a restored respect for international law. In the case of the U.S. drone program and other targeting killings, those promises have not been kept.

BACK HOSTING THE “TONIGHT SHOW,” JAY LENO OFFERED UP THIS ZINGER: “Former President Bush is writing a book about how he made decisions in the White House. The book has two chapters: heads and tails.”

HAD BUTLER UNIVERSITY’S GORDON HAYWARD MADE A LAST-SECOND SHOT TO UPSET DUKE in the NCAA national championship game it would, indeed, have been the greatest college basketball game, as the Boston Globe‘s Bob Ryan maintained (if not the greatest game ever). But he didn’t, and Duke prevailed, 61-59, in what will still be remembered as a sensational title game.

CHARLES PELLEGRINO, AUTHOR OF THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA, LOST ALL CREDIBILITY in March when it surfaced that his book relied on fraudulent sources and that Pellegrino did not have the doctorate he claimed to have earned. Henry Holt & Company recalled the book and offered refunds to retailers and wholesalers. Prior to the recall, World War II veterans involved in the atomic bombing of Japan had attacked the veracity of Pellegrino’s account on several fronts, including his claim that Col. Paul W. Tibbets, the lead pilot, had expressed remorse over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Pellegrino episode is reminiscent of the controversy over Michael Bellesiles’ discredited research for Arming America, a history that claimed gun ownership was not as prevalent as believed in colonial times.

WHAT WILL BE THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PASSAGE OF OBAMACARE? At the White House ceremony where he signed health insurance reform into law, President Obama argued that opponents of the measure were on the wrong side of history. There is no question that establishing mandated near-universal health care represents an accomplishment of historical significance–but unlike other entitlement expansions (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.), the new healthcare program did not gain bipartisan support.

Will ObamaCare survive the 2010 congressional mid-terms and the 2012 presidential election? Will its dramatic expansion of federal power be scaled back? What will be the consequences of the ill will and polarization the process has engendered?

SINGER GARY ALLAN’S “KISS ME WHEN I’M DOWN” PROVES ONCE AGAIN THAT WITTY SONG TITLES ABOUND IN COUNTRY MUSIC. The tune is on Allan’s 2009 release, “Get off on the Pain,” an album which Bill Friskics-Warren of the Washington Post called “terrific.”

NOVELIST PHILIP KERR’S LATEST THRILLER, IF THE DEAD RISE NOT, is the sixth to feature Bernie Gunther, a German detective (of sorts) whose adventures in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and elsewhere touch on much of mid-20th century history. The book is another page-turner from Kerr that entertains while it educates.

MY FAVORITE TELEVISION PROGRAM AS A CHILD WAS “DANIEL BOONE,” and I was pleasantly surprised when, later in life, I met Fess Parker, the lead actor in the show, and found him to be a warm, engaging man who mixed folksiness with graciousness. Fess Parker died March 18 at the age of 85, a fixture in his adopted community of Santa Barbara, where he had developed a waterfront hotel and established an award-winning vineyard. RIP.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM FRENCH THEOLOGIAN AND SCIENTIST PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN (1881-1955): “It doesn’t matter if the water is cold or warm if you’re going to have to wade through it anyway.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: icebergs, raisin bread, and the short story

What makes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing even some eight decades after its publication is how this brief story illustrates some of Hemingway’s literary rules of thumb in practice. It features Hemingway’s clean, plain-style prose (“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way”); his “iceberg principle” of omitting detail and forcing the reader to decode the story; and his belief that symbols should be naturally baked into a narrative (like, he once wrote, plain bread) and should not stick out “like raisins in raisin bread.”

Continue reading “Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’…

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and the dark temptations of paranoia

There’s something to be said for paranoia, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Our prehistoric ancestors faced a brutal, unforgiving world where misjudging a threat could prove fatal. Suspicion of strangers was a natural instinct, and a well-developed sense of “friend or foe” might mean you were more likely to survive and pass on your genes.

Long after the survival threat to homo sapiens became less pressing, the paranoid proclivity remained. When it is triggered by environmental or genetic factors, and causes abnormal suspiciousness and delusions of persecution or danger, clinicians call it “paranoid personality disorder.” As Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has observed, “…it’s interesting to note how many psychopathologies, including paranoia, may simply be evolutionary ingrained tendencies turned up a notch too high.”

Many authors, artists and film-makers have been fascinated by the alienation present in paranoia, and while it seems to be a modernist concern (consider: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”) the theme surfaced in literature well before the advent of Freudian psychiatry. While Nathaniel Hawthorne did not set out to directly address the impact of paranoia in “Young Goodman Brown,” his haunting short story has retained its appeal long after its 1835 publication, I would argue, precisely because it taps into the feelings of isolation, fear of the Other, and, yes, the dark temptations of paranoia that are part of the human condition.

What do I mean by the dark temptations of paranoia? It’s that natural, and gratifying, inclination to blame others for our misfortune. It includes our very human tendency to bear grudges, to question the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends, to fear being exploited or deceived, and to credulously accept conspiracy theories. And “It wasn’t my fault. They were out to get me” offers a tempting explanation for trouble, one that neatly shifts any blame for failure or disappointment onto malevolent others.

Paranoid reality or paranoid dream?

Many literary critics have seen “Young Goodman Brown” (along with The Scarlet Letter) as part of Hawthorne’s critique of Calvinist theology as practiced in New England, especially the Puritan fascination with predestination and the role of the Elect—those divinely-selected Christians assured of a place in heaven. Certainly the story is crammed with religious symbolism and imagery and touches on many of these themes. Yet the universal appeal of the story lies in its portrayal of a young man struggling with his growing sense that the world has turned against him, and the open question as to whether his new-found disillusionment with family and friends is grounded in reality or reflects a delusional dream-state.

As with many horror stories, “Young Goodman Brown” relies on a series of small revelations, dark imagery, and hints of the supernatural to build suspense. Goodman Brown of Salem sets off on a mysterious journey with, we are told, an “evil purpose”; his wife, Faith, (“aptly named”) tries to entice him to stay home, but he refuses.

Once in the dark forest, Goodman Brown encounters an older man, a “fellow-traveler” whose companionship is not “wholly unexpected” by Goodman. Hawthorne foreshadows events to come as Goodman Brown wonders: “What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!”

Soon we learn that the devil, indeed, is at his elbow (disguised as his grandfather and carrying a staff “which bore the likeness of a great black snake, so curiously wrought that it might almost be seen to twist and wriggle itself like a living serpent”), that his religious mentor Goody Cloyse is a witch, and that Goodman Brown’s father and grandfather before him had embraced the occult.

When Goodman Brown reaches the clearing where the devil worshipers will hold their Satanic ceremony of initiation, he recognizes “a score of the church members of Salem village famous for their especial sanctity.” And these “grave, reputable, and pious people” are joined by “men of dissolute lives and women of spotted fame”—good and wicked, sinners and saints joined in their “homage to the prince of all.” He is staggered by the enormity of the deception, aghast at his discovery that the Elect of his community are part of this “impious assembly,” one he has come to join.

Even worse, however, is discovering that the young woman also awaiting “baptism” into this congregation, “trembling before that unhallowed altar,” is his own wife. Young Goodman Brown hesitates, and then calls on his wife to join in resisting “the evil one.” In a flash he finds himself alone, “amid calm night and solitude,” but whether Faith has also turned away from Satan, “he knew not.”

When he returns to Salem Goodman Brown is a changed man, shrinking from contact from the minister, snubbing his wife when he meets her. Then, in an intriguing twist, Hawthorne introduces doubt about the reality of Young Goodman Brown’s experience. Perhaps he hasn’t uncovered a coven of “fiend-worshippers” but instead imagined the scene:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?

Be it so if you will; but, alas! it was a dream of evil omen for young Goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream.

Is Goodman Brown’s nightmarish experience just that: a nightmare? Or has he discovered the reality behind the scrim of Puritan convention? The psychic damage has been done, in either case, for he can no longer encounter the townspeople, or his wife, without seeing them as secretly in league with the Devil.

A modern psychiatrist, rejecting prima facie the existence of Satan, might very well diagnose Goodman Brown as harboring paranoid fantasies. His belief that everyone around him had joined a sinister, and hidden, conspiracy would suggest paranoid personality disorder. (If the people of Salem were actually involved in witchcraft and secret devil worship, then the situation becomes much more complex.)

Contemporary demons

We may no longer believe in witches or the presence of Satan, but we still confront our own contemporary demons. Paranoia continues to have its artistic fascination. The Puritans of the Bay Colony had theological underpinnings for their fears, ours stem more often from half-baked ideologies (for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories) or junk science.

There has been a brisk demand for horror films trading on the thrill of group paranoia. It’s why Hollywood has fashioned four film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a science-fiction story of alien invaders who secretly transform humans into “pod-people.”

The first film version came in 1956 (reflecting concerns about Communist subversion), the best-known remake followed in 1978 (trading off post-Watergate paranoia), the third in 1993 (with fears of toxic waste and a compromised environment as a backdrop), and the most recent in 2007, retitled The Invasion, (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring a plot revolving around an alien virus).

Since the AIDs epidemic, paranoia about infection has been a continuing theme in popular culture, whether in the form of science fiction thrillers about pandemics (Twelve Monkeys, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Children of Men) or in the current fascination with vampires (the Twilight series, HBO’s “True Blood,” 30 Days of Night). Then there is 2007’s very popular I Am Legend, the most recent cinematic version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel (following The Last Man on Earth in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971), which offers moviegoers both infectious disease and vampirism.

Fearing a global epidemic is not irrational, as the spread of AIDs and the outbreaks of bird flu in China and foot and mouth disease in Britain have highlighted the danger, but the probability of an unchecked pandemic is much less than Hollywood screenwriters would have you think, and the probability of vampire and zombie attacks approaches nil. But in troubled times, cathartic fear and loathing (the stuff of group paranoia) always plays well at the box office.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

November 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Campaign 2008: five observations, “small wind” power, Cold War espionage redux, and other commentary

With a tip of the cap (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

HERE ARE FIVE “MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK” OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE 2008 CAMPAIGN:

1. In the end, consider the key to the 2008 presidential election not President-elect Barack Obama’s lofty inspirational rhetoric, nor the inadequacies of the message-challenged McCain campaign, nor the drag of the GOP’s unprepared vice presidential nominee, but something much more elemental: money. The old journalistic imperative of “follow the money” helps explain why Obama will sit behind the Oval Office desk in January. USA Today reports that Obama raised $750 million for his presidential run, shattering records, and his huge advantage in campaign fund-raising translated into a huge advantage in television advertising. In the general election Obama spent $240 million on TV ads versus McCain’s $126 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Obama dominated local television advertising (as the Nielsen Media Research numbers show) and his massive war-chest allowed him to underwrite Get Out the Vote efforts in the key swing states of Florida and Ohio and compete (and win) in the historically red states of North Carolina and Virginia.

2. The failure of the American mainstream media in covering campaign 2008 was not, as some on the Right would argue, the open cheerleading for Obama, nor negative reporting about McCain and his running mate Gov. Sarah Palin, but rather what was ignored or received relatively light coverage—in the general election it was Obama’s decision to forgo public campaign financing, breaking the joint pledge he and McCain had made during the primary season. There was very little sustained criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on campaign finance reform, formerly a favorite cause for liberal newspaper editorialists.

The coverage of Obama’s final week 30-minute infomercial—which, it can be argued, happened only because of his unfettered Internet fund-raising—was largely positive. If a conservative candidate had purchased a late-campaign infomercial at great cost after renouncing a pledge to observe federal funding limits, would the media have focused on the message or on the perceived betrayal of good government? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the Democratic primaries it was the free pass the mainstream media gave to Obama in the crucial months of December 2007 and January 2008. Most mainstream newspaper and network reporters repeated the David Axelrod-fashioned narrative that Obama was a bipartisan agent of change and hope without validating any of those claims, or examining Obama’s Chicago past in any detail. That helped Obama to victory in the Iowa caucus and the early primaries.

3. The 2008 election should have, once and for all, demonstrated the unreliability of exit polls. Before being adjusted to match the actual vote totals, these polls  produced flawed results in the Democratic primaries, overstating support for Obama (by some seven percentage points).  Prior to the general election, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg (in an interview with Huffington Post) acknowledged the shakiness of the measuring stick: “The biggest problem with exit polls is… we do know that young voters are much more likely to do an exit survey and seniors are much less likely to do an exit poll. So exit polls are heavily waited to young people, which normal bias favors Democrats especially this year.”

And a  Rasmussen Reports survey found evidence of the Shy Tory Factor (or Shy Conservative Factor), where Republicans are more reluctant and Democrats more willing and eager to participate in exit polls.

Not surprisingly, then, in the general election exit poll numbers overstated Obama’s support, a fact noted by former Bush strategist Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal column:

… for the third election in a row the exit polls were trash. The raw numbers forecast an 18-point Obama win, news organizations who underwrote the poll arbitrarily dialed it down to a 10-point Obama edge, and the actual margin was six.

The early exit polls in California also wrongly suggested that Proposition 8, which sought to bar gay marriage, would lose. Again, it’s clear that pro-Prop 8 voters didn’t cooperate with exit pollsters in proportion to their numbers.

The clear flaws in exit polls—in 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2008—should silence the conspiracy theorists of the Angry Left who have argued that any discrepancies between the polls and actual votes in the Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry elections represented vote fraud by the Republicans.

But don’t hold your breath for Seven Stories Press to recall “Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen?: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count” by Steve Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, which stridently made the vote fraud case, or for the authors to acknowledge that they were wrong.

4. The prolonged recount of the Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota has highlighted another truth: voting is an imperfect process. Americans should recognize that human error and mechanical failures mean that all election results have a margin of error. By all accounts Minnesota has a solid election system, with an auditable paper trail, and yet anyone looking at the contested ballots (including a vote for the Lizard People) and the dispute over absentee ballots can see that any recount will involve some subjective judgment.

5. Will the last Republican in New England please turn out the lights? When Connecticut’s Chris Shays lost his Congressional seat, it meant that the GOP cannot point to a single member of the House of Representatives from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine or Connecticut. And how long will Republicans hold onto the U.S. Senate seats in Maine if the national party doesn’t welcome libertarian views on social issues?

WILL THE FUTURE OF WIND POWER BE SMALL, NOT LARGE? There’s a growing trend towards “small wind” —wind turbines for residences, small cities, organizations and businesses, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The Globe reports:  “The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.” This grass-roots wind power may indeed prove more effective than the “large wind” vision of massive wind farms on- or off-shore.

COLD WAR ESPIONAGE IS BACK IN THE NEWS. From Europe comes word that an Estonian defense ministry official, recruited by the Russians at the close of the Cold War, may have passed NATO and European Union secrets to his Kremlin handlers. Der Speigel reports that “the case is a disaster for Brussels.”

And from England, the Daily Mail alleges that a leading “peace” advocate and Labor Party member of Parliament, Cynthia Roberts, was a spy for Czech intelligence.

The Sunday Mail ran a surprisingly harsh editorial about the Roberts affair, drawing a broader lesson from her alleged treachery:

In some cases, the connections went far deeper. We may never know how many union officials, front-bench spokesmen, ordinary MPs and others were secret sympathisers of Soviet power, frightened victims of KGB bedroom blackmail, or actually in the pay of Warsaw Pact intelligence services.

The wretched saga of Cynthia Roberts reminds us of just how close the links were between Western socialists and the Communist world. Mrs Roberts sordidly provided her services to the doomed Czech Communist regime, one of the nastiest in all Eastern Europe.

IN REALITY, LINCOLN’S “TEAM OF RIVALS” WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL and President-elect Obama shouldn’t be looking to such an arrangement for success, or so Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker would have us believe, according to his Los Angeles Times essay on the topic. Obama has praised Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which claims Lincoln’s inclusion in his cabinet of three contemporary rivals for the presidency (William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates) proved to be a masterful stroke. Pinsker begs to differ (“Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.”) and his account should give Obama some pause as he brings his primary rivals (Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden) into his administration.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM HERMAN MELVILLE’S NARRATOR IN “BILLY BUDD”: “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the world of work

Herman Melville knew not only how to tell a straightforward story, but also how to slyly include enough different elements, literary references, and symbols to add several layers of meaning to his tales; this ability to fuse narrative and symbolism is on full display in “Bartleby The Scrivener,” a longish short story first published in 1853.

Melville understood the value of ambiguity. By making the character of Bartleby, a legal scrivener (or copyist), so strange, so opaque, and so memorable, Melville insured the story’s lasting appeal. We never learn why Bartleby “prefers not” to tackle his office duties, and the underlying reasons for his stubborn resistance remain unexplained. As “Bartleby the Scrivener” begins, its narrator, the Wall Street lawyer who employs Bartleby, emphasizes the man’s mysteriousness:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him…

Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein has noted that this “blank Bartleby” has encouraged multiple readings of the character. Who is Bartleby? Who is he meant to represent? Some critics have viewed Bartleby as a stand-in for many of Melville’s sometimes difficult contemporaries (Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne) or for Melville himself. Was Bartleby a response to the negative reviews and flagging sales of Melville’s novels Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), a suggestion that Melville “preferred not” to produce more accessible and less metaphorical fiction, even if readers preferred it? A different interpretation casts Bartleby as a Christ-like figure, misunderstood and persecuted by the world; those of a Marxist bent see him as the archetype of the office worker resisting the mind-numbing demands of exploitative capitalism.

Not every reader of Melville appreciates his fondness for the baroque and not all critics have delighted in his literary tricks. The English novelist D.H. Lawrence, in a critique of Moby-Dick, disapproved of what he called Melville’s attempt to “square himself with the intellectual world by dragging in deliberate transcendentalism, deliberate symbols and ‘deeper meanings.’ All this is insufferably clumsy and in clownish bad taste: self-conscious and amateurish to a degree, the worst side of American behavior.” In contrast, Lawrence writes, when Melville “renders us his sheer apprehension of the world…” then “he is wonderful” and his writing commands “a stillness in the soul, an awe.”

“Bartleby the Scrivener” does give us more “sheer apprehension of the world” and it can be read in simpler terms, as a story highlighting the tensions and contradictions in relationships at work. Melville caught some of the absurdity and alienation of office work at a time when most Americans made their living on farms. Bartleby’s eccentric office-mates—Nipper, Turkey, Ginger Boy—would fit right into the hijinks at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of the television sit-com “The Office.”

A prudent narrator

One entry point for the story is the narrator, Bartleby’s boss, whose dealings with his strange employee provide Melville’s narrative arc. The narrator/lawyer decribes himself as “rather elderly man,” one who is “eminently safe,” and he is sure to note that he has been praised by the famous financier John Jacob Aster as prudent and methodical. Yet the narrator has been living an “unexamined life” (to borrow a phrase from the transcendentalists). Proud of his commercial success and prudence, with a “natural expectancy of instant compliance” from his employees, he is totally unprepared for Bartleby’s resistance (“I would prefer not to”) and rejection of convention. Bartleby’s response puts the narrator strangely on the defensive. The lawyer regards himself as a decent, Christian man and we sense that he is not completely comfortable with wielding authority over his “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” employee. He cannot bring himself to confront Bartleby directly, and becomes profoundly linked to this strange employee:

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.

The lawyer tries to cope with the situation rationally: he attempts to reason with Bartleby, to negotiate with him, and, finally, to pay him to go away. He finds that he cannot alter Bartleby’s insistence on withdrawing from work and from life. It is only the fear that “the strange creature I kept at my office” will damage his reputation, and hurt his law practice, that leads him to end their relationship, but even then he cannot do it directly, instead moving his office to escape Bartleby, this “intolerable incubus.”

Yet the narrator remains haunted by Bartleby. What does he owe him? Where does his responsibility end? All of his attempts to help Bartleby are rebuffed, but the lawyer still feels guilty when Bartleby’s stubborn rejection of the conventional costs him his life.

Some of the lasting appeal of the story is that it reflects, in exaggerated form, the natural workplace tension between boss and employee. How does the manager exercise his or her authority? By command and control or through gentle persuasion? And who ends up with the real power in the relationship? After all, the worker is not without leverage—sabotage or deliberately shoddy work is always an option, or (as with Bartleby) passive-aggressive resistance.

The puzzle of Bartleby

The close to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (what the narrator calls a sequel), fails to solve the puzzle of Bartleby. We learn that Bartleby served as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and had lost his job with a change in administration. (Some critics have argued that the Dead Letters represent Melville’s failed novels, and that Bartleby’s despair reflects Melville’s despondency over what he thought was a dead-end for his writing.) The narrator draws a connection between Bartleby’s prior occupation and his eventual breakdown: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned.”

But somehow Bartleby’s tacked-on past doesn’t seem enough to explain his bizarre behavior, his deadened affect, his anhedonia. His alienation and separation must have deeper and hidden psychic roots, but Melville deliberately leaves the mystery of this strange, ghostly scrivener unsolved.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

Both American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, named Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when asked recently by journalists to cite their favorite novel. McCain has said that during his captivity in North Vietnam as a POW he recited portions of the book to himself.

It’s intriguing that both McCain and Obama chose a novel set not in the United States, but in Spain during its fratricidal Civil War in the late 1930s. The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is an American, however, Robert Jordan, a leftist college professor and International Brigades volunteer who embarks on a dangerous mission to blow up a strategic bridge in the Iberian hill country. At least one conservative writer, Michael Knox Beran, has tartly suggested that McCain should find a different favorite, one that isn’t “a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.”

There is some irony in Beran’s critique of the politics of Hemingway’s novel, because the hard Left in the United States, including some of the American Communists who served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (part of the International Brigades), ferociously attacked the book (and its author) after its publication in 1940. These critics, among them former Lincoln commander Milton Wolff, objected to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Soviet motives and tactics in Spain and to his unsparing and harsh portraits of political commissar André Marty (known as the “Butcher of Albacete” for his purge of non-Communists in the International Brigades) and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, the Leftist icon also known as La Passionara. (Hemingway, never one to duck a fight, responded directly and profanely to those he called the “ideology boys.”)

Hemingway made a distinction between supporting the Loyalist cause, as did his fictional character Robert Jordan, and endorsing the Soviet strategy of deception and manipulation in dealing with the Republican government. Such an approach was anathema to the hardliners. There’s an amusing anecdote (recounted in Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War) involving the actor Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s choice to play Robert Jordan in the film of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alvah Bessie, a Lincoln veteran and screenwriter. During the filming, Bessie lectured Cooper about how the Spanish conflict hadn’t been a civil war, as Cooper believed, but instead was a German and Italian invasion designed to overthrow the legal government of Spain. Cooper’s laconic, and classic, response: “That so? That’s what so great about this country…a guy like you can fight in a war that’s none of his business.”

Art and the “Good Fight”

It’s not hard to see why the “Good Fight” (as the Spanish struggle was dubbed) inspired artists, poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers from the start. The conflict was rich with dramatic, and tragic, elements. Writers have been drawn by the idealism of many of the defenders of the Republic, and by the idea that the Spanish hostilities represented a dress rehearsal for World War II. Some of the best works about the conflict, such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s novel, have explored the tensions within the ranks of the Loyalists. This artistic and literary fascination with the “Good Fight” has continued into the 21st century as evidenced by a continuing stream of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, including English author C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a best-seller in Britain.

Sansom has set his fictional story in 1940 Madrid, a year after General Francisco Franco’s victory over the Loyalists, and Winter in Madrid shines brightest in its evocative portrayal of the grim life in Spain’s capital city: the compromises, and sacrifices, required for survival. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Brett, a veteran of Dunkirk, is recruited by British Intelligence to spy on a former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in shady business dealings with the Spanish government. Brett’s mission exposes him to the corruption and venality of the Nationalist victors, and to the growing rivalry between the Royalist and Falange wings of Franco’s regime.

Sansom’s characters reflect the range of British attitudes toward the Spanish conflict. Harry Brett is a self-described liberal Tory (“As far as I am concerned, Spain before the Civil War was rotten with chaos, and the Fascists and Communists both took advantage”). The crypto-Fascist Forsyth is balanced by a British Communist, Bernie Piper, an internationalist who embraces the Republican cause as part of a broader struggle against Fascism. And there is an English Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, an idealistic, but fragile, fellow traveler who becomes romantically involved with both Piper and Forsyth. The three men—Brett, Piper and Forsyth—have all attended Rookwood, a traditional British public school, and Sansom intersperses flashbacks of their school days throughout the pages of Winter in Madrid, linking past and present friendships and rivalries. That’s a lot of baggage for any novel to carry, and Sansom struggles to pull off the dual narratives.

He also misses the mark in his characterization of Forsyth, a straight-from-Central-Casting sadist, exactly the sort of predictable Fascist bad guy found in innumerable World War II thrillers. Franco’s Spanish supporters are also uniformly portrayed by Sansom as grasping, or evil, or both. Yet, it is possible for a novelist to write about the complex human dimensions of those loyal to a twisted ideology. For example, Alan Furst has created a number of fully-rounded characters drawn to totalitarian creeds in novels like The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, and Dark Star, and David Downing’s Zoo Station and Silesian Station give us flesh-and-blood Germans struggling to retain their decency in Nazi Germany. Winter in Madrid would have been better served by grays instead of black-and-white, and it would have been a much better novel if Sansom had risked more by creating less predictable, and less cliched, villains.

To his credit, Sansom gets his history right. There’s no whitewashing of Comintern treachery during the Civil War, and also no shying away from the post-war reality of Nationalist brutality. At one level, Winter in Madrid can be read as an indictment of Britain’s accomodationist policy toward Franco and the Spanish Right in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet Sansom acknowledges that by the time of the Battle of Britain, Whitehall’s options had narrowed. No matter how distasteful the Franco regime might be, keeping Spain out of an alliance with the Germans had to shape British policy.

Sansom’s imaginative leap in setting Winter in Madrid after the end of the civil war deserves praise as well. We see Spain confronting not only the human costs of its ideological death struggle—the shattered veterans, the orphans, the despairing widows—but also the grim prospects of life under a dictatorship. It is a fascinating, and haunting, story and Winter in Madrid tells it well.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Winter reading: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”

It’s been a colder than usual winter in New England, with heavy snowfall and low temperatures well into March, but then again, cold is a relative matter.

I was reminded of that relativity when I re-read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” this winter, a short story set in the bitterly cold Yukon wilderness, a harsh environment that London knew well from his days as a miner and adventurer during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. Bitter cold meant temperatures that could reach 75 degrees below zero, and according to London the “Yukon Code” cautioned against traveling alone “after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.”

My father introduced me to Jack London when I was young, and I devoured “The Call of the Wild” and “Burning Daylight” and many of London’s other adventure stories. Today I wonder if my father gravitated to London because he identified with him: both were voracious readers, self-educated men who became writers, and both lost their fathers (to desertion for London, to divorce for my father) as they became teen-agers.

London’s stories are long on description and plot, and short on character development. He set out to write page-turners because, like Dickens, much of his fiction appeared serially in newspapers and magazines. London first published “To Build a Fire” in Youth’s Companion in 1902 and a second, revised version (the one you will find in anthologies) in The Century Magazine in 1908. (The complete story is here.)

What makes London’s stories powerful is their authenticity. He gives us the insider’s view of life in the Yukon in “To Build a Fire,” which lends a matter-of-fact, journalistic quality to story. (London prided himself on getting the details right, tartly explaining to the copy editor at Youth’s Companion who had the temerity to question the story’s factuality that fires couldn’t be built with mittened hands.)

A killing cold

The cold takes on a personality of its own in “To Build a Fire”: relentless, unforgiving, a merciless force that kills the unexposed human in just minutes. The protagonist in the story is overmatched, “a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.” London faults this novice for both his ignorance and his arrogance; the only creature with any sense is the man’s “big native husky, the proper wolf dog” who instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel.

The man plans to follow the trail back to camp and his fellow miners, where he eagerly anticipates a hot supper waiting. He ignores the advice given by old-timers, not to travel alone in such extreme conditions. And since he has not formed any emotional bond with his husky, London tells us “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man.”

When the man blunders into a branch of the Henderson river—a dangerous misstep as it drenches his feet and legs—he reacts promptly, starting a small fire and gradually and carefully feeding it. Belatedly he recognizes the danger:

…He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

But the man makes another—disastrous—rookie mistake: he has built his fire under a snow-laden birch tree. When the snow capsizes onto the fire, extinguishing it, he is shocked “as though he just heard his own sentence of death.”

From this point “To Build a Fire” moves inexorably, grimly, towards its end. The man’s frantic efforts to build another fire fail—his bare hands are crippled by the cold, and he realizes why the old-timers insisted that “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.” The newcomer thinks of killing the dog and warming his hands in its carcass, but he no longer has the strength to hold the dog, draw his knife and finish him off. “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him,” London writes, adding, “This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.”

Re-reading the story after many years, I was most struck by London’s dispassion in recounting the last few hours of this chechaquo‘s life. (London never mentions the man’s name in The Century Magazine version of the story). There is no sense of tragedy, for London portrays the man as a victim of his own foolhardiness, an amateur who has lost this Darwinian contest.

London finishes the story quickly. We are told: “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.” (I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” in which he muses that for the destruction of world ice “Is also great/And would suffice.”) In the last paragraph of the story, we learn that the man “drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” His husky confirms that this is indeed, the end, as he crawls close to the man “and caught the scent of death.”

A heroic contrast

It would be a mistake to conclude from “To Build a Fire” that London viewed Man vs. Nature as a necessarily unequal contest. As an outdoorsman he admired those men whose physical and mental strength allowed them to prevail despite the harshest of circumstances. In his novel “Burning Daylight,” his hero Eliam Harmish (who is nicknamed Burning Daylight) represents the Omega of the Alaskan outdoorsman—virile, a canny veteran, and yet with a test-pilot’s appetite for risk.

But Harmish knows the rules, knows the danger, and in the first chapters of the novel his initial mythic battle with the harsh Northern elements—through a two-thousand-mile dog-sled trip on a dare—represents a deliberate and conscious test of manhood. He makes the epic journey carrying the mail from Circle City to Dyea and back in sixty days, in frigid weather, nearly killing one Indian companion and wearing down another. By accomplishing the near-impossible “[h]e had performed one more exploit that would make the Yukon ring with his name–he, Burning Daylight, the king of travelers and dog-mushers.”

Even as Eliam Harmish celebrates his victory, London sounds a warning note: “At the sharpest hazards of trail and river and famine, the message was that other men might die, but that he would pull through triumphant. It was the old, old lie of Life fooling itself, believing itself–immortal and indestructible, bound to achieve over other lives and win to its heart’s desire.” And later in the novel Burning Daylight will learn that he, too, can fail.

Yet London, a student of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and a socialist and materialist, balanced his fatalism with a romantic insistence that only by confronting life head-on and taking great risks could we become fully human. The reward is worth the risk. “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet,” London’s “Credo” proclaims, adding, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.