Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stealing Enchantment

I’ve always been a bit enamored of the 1930s in spite of the crushing effects of the Great Depression that detrimentally affected so many. Yet it is that economic deprivation that brought people together. It began with sweeping Republicans out of office after their capitalist neo laissez faire policies and after decades of setting the tone for an economic life in the United States in the late 19th century through the the early 20th that allowed financial speculation to nearly lead to the downfall of an economic system designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Out of that collapse came a wave of Democratic Party leadership that favored people who deserved to have a chance to climb out of the pit dug for them by avaricious capitalism.
Even while the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted policies that provided relief and put people back to work through provisions like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), capitalists dug in their heels globally and went into a martial kind of mode to save themselves and then to regain power. This began in Italy and then in Spain and Germany.

Charles Wertenbaker

The growth of industrial capital, in a thinly veiled local example, is embodied in the 1950 novel by Delaware author Charles Wertenbaker entitled The Barons about three cousins in the early 20th century coming together to save a failing company and transform it into an industrial giant. Sound familiar?
Wertenbaker favored one of those cousins, portraying him, even in the midst of family scandal and personal foibles, as a leader who at least seemed to appreciate that the acquisition of wealth begins with hard work and not merely financial machinations or even good bookkeeping as his two other cousins believed, and who is in a position to do “a big, good thing.”
One can easily suppose that one of the major struggles of the 20th century was for capital to regain a foothold over the economic life of the world, accomplished as a result of global war. However that martial means that capital invented to save itself was ostensibly defeated after the end of World War II. That invention called fascism, which had over run Europe and threatened to supplant democracy in the United States and having already compromised genuine social progress in the Soviet Union, was never ultimately defeated.
Such was the conclusion determined in Charles Wertenbaker’s final novel, The Death of Kings from 1954. In the novel, the main antagonist, Louis Baron, the son of Stuart Baron from his previous novel The Barons, who had closely resembled A. I. duPont, resembles Henry Luce who runs a national magazine that could be easily mistaken for TIME magazine. Under Louis Baron’s aegis is assembled a network of political paranoia, a subterfuge of suspicions driven by villains, some of whom are unwitting, blinded by fear, and in the case of one who resembles Whittaker Chambers, outright and overtly evil.
The story in The Death of Kings begins with the devastating events just before the outbreak of World War II, particularly the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was an event that split the Left, began the process of diluting a united Left in sympathy with progressive policies of the Roosevelt administration, and ended a “time of enchantment” during the 1930s, which would have been the title of Wertenbaker’s next novel, and the middle book of a trilogy that would’ve begun with The Barons and ended with The Death of Kings. 

Shortly after finishing The Death of Kings Wertenbaker contracted cancer, whether because it had run in his family or was triggered by the yellow paint he and a youthful friend had found and used to paint an entire house when working as laborers for Dupont near Wilmington. In any case, Wertenbaker considered cancer a somatic personification of evil. He made little more than some notes for A Time of Enchantment. About the proposed novel he declared:
“In all large organizations where one man is at the top, the others near the top will fight to get there, and so the morality of that organization will be conditioned by the struggle for power, and that morality will determine the organization’s external, as well as its internal, dealings. The only way to avoid this power complex, this power struggle, is by keeping the organization small and powerless (as in a very small business or a very small kingdom) or by curbing the power of the top man by vesting power in other –– and frequently hostile –– organizations (as in the checks and balances of the U.S. government or kingship in Britain). Let loose the struggle for power anywhere, and it will destroy all other concepts.”
While the phalanx of martial capitalism threatened to consume all of Europe, meanwhile in the United States, investments of government funds into the social welfare of our citizens was fueling progressive policies. Even some corporate leadership displayed some social responsibility, but it was government that established Social Security, unemployment insurance, greater enabling of labor unions, and cultural programs like the WPA’s artists, writers, music and theatre projects that fueled speculation that the projects might morph  into a cabinet level Department of Culture, and that was an enchanting notion.
However the seeds of fascism were hiding not only in the isolationist/America First woodwork, but in places like the Dies Committee of the U.S. Congress, having reared its ugly head in the attempted fascist coup d’etat exposed by General Smedley Butler in 1934. In Wertenbaker’s The Death of Kings we see a depiction of the right wing and fascists sympathizers gaining a foothold inside an important post war media vehicle. By the end of the novel Wertenbaker casts a wary eye at Spain with the remaining fascist regime under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The die had already been cast regarding the prospect of fascism in America. We had won the war, but we were loosing the battles, and over the next seventy years we would continue to loose battles while the legacy of Roosevelt’s policies got chipped away and the prospect of a time of enchantment faded from our consciousness. In this manner, Wertenbaker’s final two novels were not only prophetic but are now long out of print.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wilmington in the Nexus of 19th Century Urban Fiction

Wilmington in the 19th century was situated, as it still is, in the nexus of other mid Atlantic cities. Because of its genteel Quaker nature and its relatively smaller size, it was unlike, by early 19th century standards, the teeming metropolises of New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore. These three cities became the source for a sub genre of antebellum literature by at least four authors with approximate  ties to nearby Wilmington: Edgar Allan Poe, George Lippard, Bayard Taylor, and most recently Walt Whitman, in an obscure and nearly lost early novel. Both Lippard and Taylor hailed from nearby Chester County, Pennsylvania, and Whitman lived his waning years in Camden, New Jersey where he died.
Our story, however, begins in Baltimore in the late 1820s with the brothers William Henry Leonard Poe and his younger brother Edgar. Estranged from one another throughout most of their youth, the Poe brothers, offsprings from the kind of rough urban life depicted in novels like Lippard's The Monks of Monk Hall and The Killers, Bayard Taylor's John Godfrey's Fortune, and Walt Whitman's The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, acted as muses for one another. However, Leonard Poe died on August 1, 1831 at the age of 24, probably from tuberculosis. Examples of Leonard Poe's poetry are similar, if not exactly the same in some cases, to his younger brother Edgar's poem "Tamerlane," making it likely that both worked together, without rancor, on the same poems, though both wrote their own separate poems.

There is a striking parallel between Poe and Delaware author and poet John Lofland. Both, at an early age, were seriously involved romantically with women, Sallie Ann Mitchell in Lofland's case and Elmira Royster in Poe's case, and both Lofland and Poe were considered bad candidates for marriage by the parents of both women. The experience of rejection, and the forced nuptials of both Mitchell and Royster, proved traumatic for both Lofland and Poe and had the affect of influencing their later work and maybe bringing the two closer together.

In one of the few prose works to have survived by Leonard Poe entitled "The Pirate," he reflects the anger and tragedy of Elmira Royster's forced marriage by depicting the "pirate," named Edgar in the story, as an exile who can never return home because he had murdered his promised betrothal on her wedding day.

Both Poe brothers spent their short lives together in Baltimore, where in later years Edgar and John Lofland encountered one another. It's not hard to imagine the two of them sharing their experiences at being jilted by romantic attachments via intervening parents. And one gets a good sense of the seedy nature of urban life in Baltimore from Lofland's own account in his "Confessions of an Opium Eater."

The urban environment in cities of the early 19th century are similarly depicted in early novels by Lippard, Taylor and Whitman. They are populated with con men, scam artists, poseurs, vagrants, prostitutes, and orphans. The honest and gainfully employed are mechanics, shop keepers, printers, blacksmiths, with others like lawyers, bankers and real estate agents often operating on the precarious edge of legality. In Whitman's The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, the villain is a lawyer out to deprive a young woman of her inheritance and to perpetuate the orphan status of Jack Engle. In Bayard Taylor's John Godfrey's Fortune,  the New York City of the same vintage as Whitman's novel seems full of fakers, shaky entrepreneurs, and women forced into prostitution by callous con men. The same could be said of Lippard's The Monks of Monk Hall, which depicts a hotbed of the same sorts of characters, but on steroids, close to home in Philadelphia. In early 19th century Delaware author Robert Montgomery Bird's Sheppard Lee, we find the protagonist hopping from body to body in the city of Philadelphia in a metempsychotic frenzy searching for a way to get rich quick.

Wilmington seemed like a refuge in the midst of ferment in the embryonic megalopolis of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In Delaware author John Biggs' novel Demigods, which occurs later in the 19th century turning into the 20th, the protagonist John Gault nearly gets swallowed up in Philadelphia's urban landscape, where he works for a while in the city's ship building yards. It is not until he moves to genteel Wilmington that he achieves any sort of success, first as a newspaper publisher and nearly so as a politician.

In real life, it wasn't until Delaware poet and author John Lofland moved to Wilmington from Baltimore and became clean and sober that he accomplished his most important and relevant literary work.

Not so with Poe. The intense urban environment in which Poe lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York eventually proved to be too much. It was while attempting to make his way to Richmond, Virginia to be reunited with the widowed Elmira Royster, his sweetheart from his youth, that he got caught up in the nefarious election campaign practice of "cooping" in Baltimore, where men where rounded up, liquored up, and in a drunken state led from polling place to polling place to exchange votes for drinks, and then abandoned to the gutter, where Poe was eventually found. Poe had become a victim of an urban practice that could have easily fit into those depicted in Lippard's The Monks of Monk Hall, Taylor's John Godfrey's Fortune or Walt Whitman's The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle