A Cora Hawthorne Segrest Centennial

Cora Belle Hawthorne

Today, September 4, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother, Cora Segrest, nee Hawthorne. She was the epitome of a grandmother; the content for the encyclopedia entry for “Grandmother”; she possessed the sine qua non of grandmotherliness.

My sister, my maternal cousins and I remember Nanny as a white-haired, physically strong, funny, stylish, and hardworking woman who lost her husband when we were all young. She watched the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson every weeknight and nearly every morning left before the sun came up to work as a nurse in Longview’s hospital. She still found time to bake chocolate-chip cookies, laying them out to cool on flattened paper bags, or cook spaghetti with a ketchup-based sauce, or prepare her singular three-layer Jell-O: an orange layer, a layer of white cottage cheese, and a green layer. Yum.

Cora Belle Hawthorne was born just days after the start of World War I, on Sept. 4, 1914 in Provencal, a tiny town in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. Her father, James Frederick Hawthorne, then 40, was a workingman, being either a sawmill laborer or a farmer at the time of her birth (the two occupations given by the 1910 and 1920 Censuses, respectively). His parents came from Georgia and Mississippi. Her mother, Sallie Annie Pharris, was then 33 and had already given birth to eight children when Cora, the youngest of six daughters, came along. Sallie would later give birth to three boys, completing the family. Her parents hailed from Virginia and Mississippi.

When her baby brother Cecil was three years old, in 1926, their mother took ill with tuberculosis. Sallie died that summer in the Texas town of Linden, over 140 miles to the northwest, where apparently the family, with the younger children, had relocated in the 1920s. So, at not quite the age of 12, Cora’s mother died, to be followed in 1930 by an older sister, Fannie, who died of T.B. in her twenty-first year. All the other siblings lived into quite old age, married, and all but one had children of their own.

In October of the next year, 1927, Fred Hawthorne remarried a Texan named Georgia Etta Josey, then 38 (to his 53). Unmarried and childless herself, it’s rumored that she was either the daughter of or the widow of a Confederate veteran whose portrait hung over her mantle. Georgia helped Fred raise the younger children from then on, and was known to us as Granny Georgie. She dipped snuff and cheated at checkers.

Although apparently living in Texas with her father and stepmother in 1930, she graduated from high school in Provencal probably in 1932, having lived with her older sister, Effie. It was in the midst of the Great Depression. Her father gave her $50, and she took off for Shreveport to enroll in beauty school there.

Frank Segrest After Cora finished, she got a job in a beauty shop in Gladewater, Texas, about 80 miles due west of Shreveport. She boarded with the Ellises—George (Elijah) and his wife, Maude. Mr. Ellis was a Baptist minister. His nephew, one Frank Segrest (whose late mother, Avie, was Ellis’s older sister), visited the house and met Cora. Frank, 30-years-old in 1934, was an engineer for the Visco Chemical Company, a pretty good job for a self-educated young man who had been afflicted with polio as a child, and who was essentially an orphan. His father had been killed in a gun battle when Frank was an infant, and his mother died when he was but 14.

In Gladewater, Cora didn’t make much, if any, money, and almost starved to death. She became very ill and was hospitalized there. Frank helped take care of her.

Marriage certificateThen, in November 1936, four days after Franklin Roosevelt beat Alf Landon to win his second presidential term, Cora and Frank ran off to Henderson, about 40 miles down the road, to get married by the justice of the peace.

After that, Cora and Frank Segrest moved around the state, and region, as he pursued various jobs and interests, mostly in the oil chemicals field. They lived in western Texas in the late 1930s, where my mother and her sister were born.

Cora Segrest with daughters Sarah and Patsy

By 1940, the family lived on Main Street in Big Spring, Texas. If you were to make a triangle from Odessa, to Abilene, to Lubbock, Big Spring would be about right in the middle.

I’m not really sure how they fared during the war, but they always got along. Cora made dresses for her daughters. They had stints of living back east in places like Tyler, Texas. The family also had enough money to have a housekeeper. One of them, while living in the west, let my Aunt Patsy smoke a cigarette. My grandmother summarily fired the woman.

So, they raised their girls and added two more children, my uncles Jimmy and Charlie in 1948 and 1955 respectively. They lived again in western Texas, but also in Oklahoma and Shreveport. In Texarkana, my grandfather ran a gas station.

During one of the times out west, my grandfather—always an inventive and industrious man—bought an airplane hanger in a town called Terminal, near Midland-Odessa. He converted part of it into an apartment for his family, and in the other part put in a church and a store. Nanny helped him run this and other stores.

Cora Segrest went to nursing school when mom was in college, in the late 1950s but didn’t work as a nurse, I think, until later, since she still had a child at home.

Frank became ill and died in January 1970, when I was a baby and Cora was 53 years old. They lived in Lafayette, Louisiana at the time. Sometime after that, she and Charlie moved to Longview, Texas, where I came to know her in her little house at 305 Shamrock Lane.

A deep but usually dry creek ran through her backyard and on down into a stand of tall pine trees. I would play in that creek for hours, either with the neighborhood kids or with my cousins if they happened to be visiting, or both. In the backyard of the neighbor’s house there was an old metal merry-go-round. We’d hop the fence and spin ourselves dizzy on that, not worried at all about the fact that it was in the neighbor’s yard. The adults would “visit” with each other and we kids would play. She had a Lincoln Logs set in a little closet where the hot water heater lived, Reader’s Digest magazines to read (I especially loved the “Drama in Real Life” series), and at Christmas time, a metal tree illuminated by a spinning, multicolored light. Charlie continued to live with her in those days (and still lives in that house). They had a collie named Lady who greeted us warmly when we arrived for a visit. We had great times in those days.

Newspaper clipping of Georgia Hawthorne

Once, when I was a teenager, Nanny handed me a sheaf of papers and told me to go with my uncle to the store to make some copies. This was the mimeographed manuscript of a Hawthorne family document prepared in 1973 on the occasion of Grannie Georgie’s 84th birthday, which was the first family history document I ever possessed. So, Uncle Charlie and I went to the grocery store, found the copier, and I started copying. I put the paper on the glass the wrong way the first time, so I discarded those misaligned copies. Finished, we returned to Shamrock Lane.

Nanny asked me, “How’d it go?”

“Fine, I guess,” I replied, wondering at her odd question. How else could it go?

“No, I mean, did you have any problems?” she came back.

Well, I explained the misaligned paper but said that no, no problems really.

“What did you do with the bad copy?” she asked.

“Threw it away.”

“Go back up there right now and get it,” she demanded.

So, Uncle Charlie and I drove back to the grocery store, and I fished around in that trashcan to pull out the errant copies. When we arrived back at the house, Nanny held out her hand to receive them. What she did with them then, I don’t know.

She was quite protective about her family!

In her later years, until she had the first of a series of strokes, Nanny never seemed to slow down. She was always warm and loving, and remained strong to the end of her days. In her last years, I was lucky to take my wife, Paula, to Texas for a visit, and to meet her. I was enormously grateful that they got to meet, and when Nanny, lying in a bed in the nursing home, saw Paula, she reached out with both arms to embrace her.

Nanny died in March 2004, aged 89 years old. The occasion of her funeral service brought the scattered members of her family back together, including most of her grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews of whom I was unaware. Some of us cousins had never actually met.

Cora Belle Hawthorne Segrest was a great lady, mother, spouse, grandmother, daughter, sibling, and all the other possible things. Go ahead and look up the entry for “grandmother” in the encyclopedia. If you don’t see your own pictured there, you might just see mine.

— Fred Dews

Thursday, September 4, 2014 — 1 note

NaPoWriMo Poems

“This Is Ridiculous”

You are trying too hard.
A cat walks in, yawns.
Look at my river of gold!
Decide to go, or not.
Blowing down the fences.
Local is too far away.
Ninety-seven green marbles.
This is your (my) brain on molasses.
I wanted to say …
Sunspots showing on your tiny face.
Has it been a whole year?
More than cavities.
More than THIS.
A big red rock falls open.
Testament to thy temperament.
A door opens backward,
a window closes in reverse order.
Expect that he will arrive later,
or not, but bearing flowers.
The lode stone shakes then vibrates.
A bug scuttles across my big ugly toe.
“It’s wonderful!” you exclaimed, “so wonderful!”
That’s why I thought we might go somewhere,
cross a river,
study a cat,
try it again.

— Fred Dews, 4/22/14


“The Cleanout”

Sorting through boxes stacked
in the closet is a trip through
memories long forgotten and packed
away in piles of stuff that grew
unnoticed in corners and tight
spaces away from all light
and any places where we might
want to show something new.

— Fred Dews, 4/7/14


“The Consequence of Eloquence”

Oh, words! Hath thou no longer carriage in voice?
I speak aloud yet no one listens, no one hears.
And, lo! I chirp, a bird’s brief song,
A hash I make of language; seeming twit I am.
And you: you sing my song, your friends they sing this song, we altogether chirp and echo this same tune.
One hundred forty small, distinct notes, over and over this trend enduring.
You, me, a bird, a tweet, a twit, a song.
On and on.

— Fred Dews, 4/6/14


"Boomcrack Jalopy Man"

Boomcrack Jalopy man got an evil eye pointin’ at me.
He know the time the place the manner of all what I’m gonna do.
Foul odor peel off him like liquid air gone rank.
You’d think he’d let me alone after all I done for him.

— Fred Dews, 4/4/14


spring blooms emerge and
offer color and scent to
laud winter’s exit.

— Fred Dews, 4/3/14


“piscibus ego sum”

Stipulate this frame of reference:
   assume I understand human terms.
Believe that I exercise a preference,
   for fish food or dried worms.

You know I like to swim,
   and hide behind my castle.
I wish you’d clean my tank more often,
   though I know it’s quite a hassle.

My gills breathe in the water,
   Your lungs breathe in the air.
My scales pertain to motion,
   But what function serves your hair?

I sometimes float, suspended,
   and rub my fins against this plant.
Do you ever want to scratch your back,
   But discover that you can’t?

If I could speak I’d tell you,
  how each day is my best.
Though unlike you it’s just a fact
  that I’ve forgot the rest.

I may have a tiny brain.
   I may be cold, and finned, and wet.
But I hope you think and do agree,
   that I’m a fairly decent pet.

— Fred Dews, 4/2/14


“The Commute”

Homeward’s stride beats morning’s,
but is slowed by the crush.

I can get there ten seconds later so: “Please, after you.”
And there are more of you than me.

A beggar’s sign reads “At least throw pennies.”
Softly, I should think.
I did toss my coins into your cardboard box, gently.
And I will never know—though I wonder—what you spent them on.
Drugs, a cheeseburger, diapers?
It’s none of my business.

This is not a race.
There will be another train just as space-free as the last.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, do I also look defeated by the day?
Vacant eyes staring into the darkness of a subway tunnel or at the tiny screen in my hands or for an uncomfortable second I stare at you staring at me.

Like bits of decontextualized talk heard along the route: detached fragments that I might string together in sentences and paragraphs and then study for some meaning though the words are not meant for me.

But all of it is nothing, and none of my business and it wasn’t very interesting anyway.

This is my stop.

— Fred Dews, 4/1/14


Many years ago I liked to dash off a poem every now and again as the mood struck me. The idea is always there, lurking, so now I’m gonna write a wee poem every day in April and post it here as part of National Poetry Writing Month.

Thanks to Jamie Gaughran-Perez at Threespot for the blog about NaPoWriMo and his interview with founder Maureen Thompson.

— Fred Dews

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Reagan Shot: “Don’t you dare say I told you so”


On this day, March 30, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by the deranged John Hinckley, Jr. As news came into the school, all of us kids were lined up in the hallway outside our second floor classrooms to be led downstairs to the cafeteria for parental pick up. As we waited to go, Mrs. Lynch, my still-favorite teacher of all time and space, spoke to me sharply, saying, “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’!”

Let me back up and explain that. In March 1981, I was a sixth-grader at St. Michael’s School in Dallas, Texas. Somehow, I had learned about the “Zero Effect” or ‘Tecumseh’s Curse,” maybe from Ripley’s Believe it or Not, which had brought the tale to public prominence in prior decades. I can’t recall my source but I was very interested in this story. Supposedly, Tenskwatawa, the brother of Shawnee leader Tecumseh, laid a curse on William Henry Harrison, the Indiana Territory’s governor and future president, following the American’s victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Or maybe Tecumseh himself put on the mojo following dirty dealing with the territorial governor in addition to the military defeats. Whoever did it and why, the curse was that somehow Harrison and all future presidents elected in a year ending in the same digit as Harrison’s election would die in office. (How the aggrieved Indians would have been able to surmise Gov. Harrison’s election to president nearly 30 years later is its own mystery.)

But I didn’t think about that timeline problem when I was 11. Instead, I was fascinated by the fact that, true to the “curse,” Harrison and a string of presidents elected every 20 years, with one interruption, did die at some point during their presidency:

  • Harrison, elected 1840, died 1841
  • Lincoln, elected 1860, assassinated 1865
  • Garfield, elected 1880, assassinated 1881
  • McKinley, (re) elected 1900, assassinated 1901
  • Harding, elected 1920, died 1923
  • Roosevelt, (re) elected 1940, died 1945
  • Kennedy, elected 1960, assassinated 1963.

The only other U.S. president to die in office outside this pattern was Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” who was elected in 1848 and died in 1850 from an intestinal ailment related to his consumption of cherries and milk on a warm Independence Day in the nation’s capital.

So, seven of 26 chief executives elected at 20-year intervals consistently died in office. That meant that, according to Tecumseh’s Curse, the president elected in 1980 was going to die in office, too.

At some point during sixth grade, I chose to share my interest in the Zero Effect with my class for show-and-tell. Indeed, I stood before my classmates and explained how every president from Harrison to Kennedy, elected at 20-year intervals, died in office. I doubt that I “predicted” the same for the next president-elect, but who knows. (I was also the kid who shared the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” for show-and-tell.)

Whatever I said, it must have made an impression on Mrs. Lynch. For as we lined up in the hall, I was not thinking about the curse at all. But apparently she was. She walked right up to me, with a stern look on her face, pointed at me, and uttered those words that I will never forget: “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’!”

I dared not! President Reagan, of course, survived (but it was a very close thing as we later learned). And then the next president elected at a 20-year interval, George W. Bush, emerged from his 8-year presidency (physically) unscathed.

Maybe Ronald Reagan broke the curse after all.

— Fred Dews,

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Abe Lincoln: Great Joker of Jokes, the Sancho Panza Made Governor

In late 1864, London Telegraph reporter George Augustus Sala, that paper’s Washington correspondent, interview the Lincolns in the Blue Parlor of the White House. In his article about that interview, Mr. Sala described his impressions of the president in great detail. More on that soon.

Here is a key section that stood out in light of certain commentators criticizing President Obama for appearing on a humor show, “Between Two Ferns”:

"The melancholy look struck me most forcibly when I remembered that I was in the presence of the great joker or jokes—the Sancho Panza made Governor of this Transatlantic Barataria …"

More to come on this …

(source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 1, 1864).

— Fred Dews

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

160 Years After First Crimean War: Into the Valley of Death Again?

I don’t pretend to have much knowledge of the first Crimean War, except to observe that it: (a) involved Britain, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire; (b) featured the Charge of the Light Brigade made famous by Lord Tennyson; and © made Florence Nightingale famous.

Russia went to war against the Ottomans in late 1853 ostensibly to “protect” Orthodox Christians then living in Ottoman territory in eastern Europe. Shades of Putin’s Russia looking to “protect” ethnic Russians in the Crimea.

Anyway, 160 years ago this month, Britain and France declared war on Russia, and fighting soon erupted on the Crimean peninsula itself.

So, on this the 160th anniversary of those land battles in the Crimea, Russian military forces are already present there. Will Ukrainian forces fight back?

Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
  Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
  Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
  Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
  Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
  All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
  Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
  Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
  All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
  Noble six hundred!

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

— Fred Dews

Saturday, March 1, 2014 — 1 note

Opening Lines from 15 Novels

In my local writers’ group recently we were discussing the opening lines of novels. We hear about the importance of the first few lines, if not the FIRST line, both to capture the reader’s attention and also to capture a potential publisher’s. So I thought I’d dive somewhat randomly into my own library and share the opening lines. I decided to extend past the literal first sentence to include what seemed to be the end of a complete thought, if not paragraph. These are in no particular order, except the first one has become one of my favorite novels ever. Some will be quite familiar.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)
Man Booker Prize

“So now get up.”

Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobble of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)
Pulitzer Prize

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
National Book Award

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.

Ahab’s Wife or, The Star-Gazer, Sena Jeter Naslund (1999)

Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my lat. Yet, looking up—into the clouds—I conjure him there: his gray-white hair; his gathered brow; and the zaggy mark (I saw it when lying with him by candlelight and, also, taking our bliss on the sunny moor among curly-cup gumweed and lamb’s ear).

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears (1998)

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity.

Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey (2009)
Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable—slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.

White Noise, Don DeLillo (1984)
National Book Award

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories.

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

(from the Preface)

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.

(from Chapter 1)

This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.

Moby-Dick or, The Whale, Herman Melville (1851)

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner (1971)
Pulitzer Prize

Now I believe they will leave me alone. Obviously Rodman came up hoping to find evidence of my incompetence—though how an incompetent could have got this place renovated, moved his library up, and got himself transported to it without arousing the suspicion of his watchful children, ought to be a hard one for Rodman to answer. I take some pride in the way I managed all that. And he went away this afternoon without a scrap of what he would call data.

The Known World, Edward Jones (2003)
Pulitzer Prize

The evening master died he worked again well after he ended the day for the other adults, his own wife among them, and sent them back with hunger and tiredness to their cabins.

Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins (1990)


This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper. The toadstool motel you once thought a mere folk tale, a corny, obsolete, rural invention.

(opening chapter)

It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Pulitzer Prize

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin—that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

- Fred Dews

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

10 Things I Hated about Gone With the Wind

File:Gone with the Wind cover.jpgI finally read Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone With the Wind.  Apparently, every woman I know read it when they were younger and it had a big impact on them. So, after my wife and mother repeatedly expressed surprise that I had never read it, I took up the challenge.

And I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed it in the sense that one “enjoys” a LONG novel full of characters who are difficult and dislikeable. Also one that is controversial in some ways for what it has to say about the American South during and after the Civil War.

I’m glad I read it primarily because it is just an excellent story and very well written. Her obituary in the New York Times said that “Whatever posterity may decide as to its merits, Miss Mitchell wrote a book which was the most phenomenal best seller ever written by an unknown author of a first novel.”

But now I’m glad that I read it and can actually have something to say about what I still believe is a very important set of issues swirling around the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Lost Cause, and racism, and more generally just the human experience.

With that, here are 10 things I “hated” about Gone With the Wind. And please note, ** here be spoilers **.

1. That it overturned my pre-GWTW notions of what the story was all about.

I had never wanted to read this book, or see the movie, because I had an uninformed assumption that it was simply an apologia for the Lost Cause, that risible Southern attitude that the cause of secession was just, that the War wasn’t about slavery but was about states rights, that the South could have won if only … if only. None of which are true, but having read the book, I see it as Margaret Mitchell’s view of their world as it was to them, not necessarily as the world she wished it to be. The author’s note at the end explains that Mitchell grew up hearing Confederate veterans’ stories of the war and that she didn’t learn that the South had lost until she was 10 years old.

Nor can I view it, without deeper inspection of the literary criticism, as a piece of literature that somehow “spawned” anew the Lost Cause mentality in the South. That was already strongly present and had been since 1865 or even earlier.

2. That the slaves/freed-slaves’ words were written in dialect.

I really hated this. It’s a style of writing not used by contemporary writers, but was quite common generations ago.

Of related interest, the WPA Ex-slave Narratives, follow this same dialect approach in transcripts. And they were conducted at the same time as Mitchell’s book was overtaking the country (1936-38).

3. That the words “darkie” and “nigger” were used throughout without irony.

Now I know this was the manner of speaking during and after the Civil War, by both Southerners and Northerners, but to a 21st-centiury reader these are very fraught and archaic terms.

Thinking now about Mark Twain’s usage of the same … it doesn’t seem so “in your face.”

A question I ponder is whether Margaret Mitchell was comfortable in her own time period (she lived 1900-1949) using these terms or if she was just being a author true to the time of the characters in her story.

It is also interesting that Mitchell presents the hierarchy of ex-slaves much the way it was lived during slavery time: house slaves, skilled workers, field hands. Mammy and Uncle Peter, house slaves, have deep disdain for the “free issue darkies” and put them on the same plane as “white trash.” So, many interesting layers of social hierarchy at work in the novel.

4. That a small child who was fairly central to part of the story died.

I really hate it when that happens.  I saw it coming as soon as Rhett latched onto Bonnie Blue and saw her as his redemption, his ticket back into society, the anti-Scarlett, even. The buildup scene to the moment of the accident was incredible.

5. That the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara, was admirable and despicable at the same time.

I disliked Scarlett’s amoral bull-headedness, but I admired this quality, too. I hated that fact that she cared so little for her children (there were long stretches in the middle of the book when Wade, her first child, was never mentioned), but admired that she saw her whole clan through the war and immediate aftermath. I see her in some respects as a feminist for her time—she didn’t understand why a woman in her society could not run a business, and she said so.

In fact, for nearly all the characters—Rhett, Ashley, Melanie, even Frank Kennedy—the author created complex, fragile, strong characters all at the same time.

Melanie Wilkes, perhaps, was the most surprising of all. That Scarlett came to think of her, in the end, as her “sword” and “armor” was most interesting. And that Rhett explained that Melanie “never had any strength. She’s never had anything but heart” was really moving, especially considering the source.

The main characters were strong and best of all changed over time, or tried to change (Ashley Wilkes) and simply couldn’t deal with it.

6. That their society was so tightly bound in archaic notions of chivalry, of gender roles, of the “proprieties.”

How many times was the word “proprieties” used in the novel?! But the characters would be as shocked at our world as we at theirs. Mitchell really put me into that world, and many times I just wanted to shake the characters and scream at them, “stop pining for your lost way of life that was made possible by the unpaid labor of enslaved people.

7. That I almost, for a smidge of a second, felt sorry for the Atlantans as Sherman and the Union forces pillaged and burned the place to the ground.

Mitchell wrote that section masterfully, as the Confederate defenders kept falling back as Union forces advanced, and the Georgians continued to believe that their forces would prevail in the end, doped as they were on the mind-altering fumes of their cause. I appreciated that both Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes saw the effort as a true lost cause, but both had different reasons for fighting.

But I do feel like I should read more on the immediate post-Civil War Reconstruction period. I’m sure there were plenty of Yankee depredations, but the way Mitchell describes it in the book, it’s as if all Yankees and freedmen, Carpetbaggers and Scalawags, were rapacious, horrible creatures.

But sure, it was a tumultuous time. One side had just been beaten, and beaten badly, and the other side … well, who in this country ever had experience re-building and rehabilitating an entire treasonous society?

8. That the Georgians fought tooth and nail against Reconstruction, including joining the Ku Klux Klan, and were basically a pack of reactionary white supremacists.

I mean, really? You have to go hang people who attack your women, instead of letting the criminal justice system take action? Oho, but the criminal justice system was being run at the time by Yankees and shifty freedman! So what’s a noble Southern man to do? Nightriders!

I’m glad that Scarlett wanted nothing to do with Klan, nor did she want her men to be involved (but for her own selfish reasons). At the same time, I’m not sure that I particularly agreed with Scarlett’s way of doing things, either: choosing the quite amoral, relatively dishonorable path to achieve her goals. There was something to admire in her neighbors who would rather be poor and remain “loyal” to what they saw as the “Lost Cause” than be rich but be friends with Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. But then they were unreconstructed secessionists.

9. The Lost Cause.

I really hate the Lost Cause mentality that prevailed in the southern states then (and in some ways, today).

The Lost Cause was stronger, dearer now in their hearts than it had ever been at the height of its glory. It was a fetish now. Everything about it was sacred, the graves of the men who had died for it, the battle fields, the torn flags, the crossed sabers in their halls, the fading letters from the front, the veterans.

Fetish then, fetish now. Another religion, but fanatical and absurd. One problem is that Mitchell just gets the history wrong in many places, even though her father was a Georgia historian. But on the other hand, her job as a novelist is to tell a story from the POV of characters who are living the story. So, this passage really stood out in all of its ahistorical glory:

Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disenfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down.

But returning to the first point, I’m not entirely sure that this book can necessarily be seen as an apologia for the Lost Cause. Surely Mitchell understood the history better than this, but to her characters, this wasn’t history. (I will look into this later; I didn’t want to “infect” these musings with anything but my actual, pure reaction to the text.)

10.  That it’s over.

Do you ever finish a novel and feel a little sad that you are done? The characters and the story linger and you kind of wish they could speak again? I felt that way. The final two things said by Rhett and Scarlett were quite moving. And you know what they are ….

I guess we’ll watch the 3+ hour-long movie and I’ll consider reading the two authorized sequels and the unauthorized The Wind Done Gone, told from the slaves’ POV.


So there you have it. Ten things I “hated” about Gone With the Wind. Truly one of the great American novels.

— Fred Dews.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

China of 2012 Censors Louisiana Purchase of 1803

In China now, you may not find out about the Louisiana Purchase, or Gadsden Purchase, or other legal U.S. acquisitions of territory. The regime doesn’t want its people to relate these peaceful transfers of territory to the current dispute with Japan over some islands.

Read about it here.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Could We Forget?

Never forget, we are reminded. How could we forget the clear blue sky on the cool September morning? How could we forget the routines we followed on our way to work, our way from work, our way out of town? How could we forget a shower of paper, like confetti, streaming down from the crippled towers? We stared at the horror for hours. How could anyone forget images of the wreckage at the Pentagon, or in a field in Pennsylvania?

A collective memory of 9/11 has arisen out of the thousands of individual images and accounts of that day and the ones that followed, details so replete with emotion and detail that, for anyone paying attention, have created sort of a mega-narrative we carry in our hearts and minds. I didn’t directly know anyone who perished that day, but in just listening and reading over the years, I’ve come to indirectly “know” a few of those who lost their lives that day, a small group of the nearly 3,000 who represent for me the lost promise of so many lives cut short: Georgetown professor Leslie Whittington and her family; Father Mychal Judge of the NYPD, saying last rites for people falling to their deaths; Rick Rescorla, who directed Morgan Stanley’s emergency preparedness and, through his efforts, evacuated nearly all staff from the World Trade Center; Paul Acquaviva, husband of a woman who is a close friend of a close friend of ours; and LTG Timothy Maude, whose daughter attended a study program at Cambridge University with me in the summer of 2002. They, like all the rest, were—like you and me—just doing what they were supposed to be doing that morning, in the places they were supposed to be. In the right place, at the right time.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to be in the inner circle of grief shared by the friends and families of these individuals—or those with more direct experience of surviving the attacks. But through all the ways of remembering and telling their stories and the narrative of that day, we continue to build up in our collective conscious a stronger edifice of memory and emotion of September 11, the date that needs no year. How can we ever forget?

— Fred Dews, September 11, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bad News by the Decades

Quick: name two GOOD news stories from each decade of the 20th Century … without going to Wikipedia … It’s hard, I know but more on this later.

Over the weekend, I attended my town’s 47th annual festival, a nice street fair with vendors, children’s crafts, entertainment, etc. Along the venue, there were four “booths” in which the history of that decade was related. Each space had an aerial photo of this region showing our development from a planned community amidst farms to a pretty dense “urban” development today; and then next to that poster was one that showed pictures of the major political, sports and entertainment figures of the decade, and then a list of “major events” of the decade. Here’s where it all fell apart. The events are nearly ALL BAD NEWS! Not to mention riddled with mistakes (no wonder America’s kids’ history test scores are low).

Beyond the mistakes, and the odd lumping of the ’90s and ’00s into “today and beyond,”  I noticed a few themes in this selection: 3 assassinations (or attempts); 2 each of: invasion, crisis, shooting, bombing; and 1 each of: mass suicide; murder(s), burglary, boycott, eruption, disaster, attack, and hurricane.

Of the 27 separate events listed below (typos included from the original, my correctives in brackets), I count four as genuine “good news” stories—the Beatles visit, the Berlin Wall’s fall, Apollo 11 landing, and Hawaii’s statehood (but note the wrong year here). Of the other 23, all but one (Roe v. Wade) are tales of war, natural disaster, political malfeasance, or criminality.

So the original question, which I am pondering: what would a “good news” list per decade look like? And what native knowledge to we bring to answering that question, without having to go look it up? I admit, it’s tough, and I’m pondering …

— Fred Dews, 2011


1960 Hawaii becomes 50th state [it was August 21, 1959]

1961 Bay of Pigs invasion

1962 Cuban missile crisis

1963 John F. Kennedy assassination

1964 Beatles’ visit U.S.

1968 Martin L. King assassination

1969 Apollo XI lands on the moon [Apollo 11, Arabic numerals]


1972 Munich Olympics murders

1972 Watergate burglary

1973 Roe vs. Wade

1979 Rev. Jimmy Jones mass suicide [Jim Jones, not Jimmy, and it was 1978]

1979 Iran hostage crisis


1980 U.S. Olympic boycott of Moscow

1980 Mt. St. Helen[s] erupts

1981 Hin[c]kley attempts to assassinate Ronald Reagan

1986 Challenger Disaster

1989 Berlin Wall comes down

Today and Beyond

1991 Operation Desert Storm

1993 World Trade Center Bombing

1995 Oklahoma City Bombing

1998 Columbine High School Shooting [it was 1999]

2000 “Dangling chads” Presidential Election

2001 9/11 Attack

2003 Invasion of Iraq

2005 Hurricane Katrina

2007 Virginia Tech Shooting

Monday, July 11, 2011

Born the Heirs of Freedom

Sarah Palin, short-time governor of Alaska, vice-presidential candidate, and politico-social celebrity, has embarked on a bus tour of America she dubs the “One Nation Tour.” In a blog post on her PAC web site, she describes the tour with a reference to a “declaration” by our founders:

“We’ll celebrate the meaning of our nation’s blueprints, our Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which are the threads that weave our past into the fabric necessary for the survival of American exceptionalism. Our founders declared ‘we were born the heirs of freedom’, and despite our difficulties and disagreements, we remain one nation under God in freedom, indivisible. Through visits to historical sites and patriotic events, we’ll share the importance of America’s foundation.”

Which founders “declared” this? In what form? And, what did they mean?

The seven words, “we were born the heirs of freedom,” are plucked from a nearly-2,100 word petition from the First Continental Congress to King George III in October 1774. Cherry picking quotes is a timeless ritual in American political discourse. America’s founding leaders were a literate group of men (and some women) who wrote libraries-worth of material; their letters, pamphlets and manuscripts were the common currency of social and political debates. Much of this writing is easily available online, and thus easily quotable.

Unlike the radical words penned in 1776, “all men are created equal,” expressing the idea that “we were born the heirs of freedom” was nothing new to any Englishman at this time. The way Palin casually combines the line into a sentence with a reference to the post-1954 version of the Pledge of Allegiance (“one nation under God … indivisible”) suggests a shallow understanding of the meaning of these words to the men who wrote them. Context is key—without at least considering the contemporary motivations of the members of the Continental Congress, one cannot fully appreciate the state of play in 1774 and the meaning any of their words can or should have for us today.

The letter was one of the last attempts by colonial leaders to appeal directly to their sovereign for redress of their grievances against colonial officials and acts of Parliament, including the Stamp Act and Quartering Act of 1765; the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767; and a series of laws dubbed the “Intolerable Acts” in 1774. During the period between the end of the French and Indian War and the Declaration of Independence, as Parliament continued to aggravate the situation in America, members of the Continental Congress remained divided over whether and when to break with England. Moderate members, including John Dickenson of Pennsylvania, believed that a direct appeal to the king from loyal subjects would induce change in the colonial ministry’s policy toward the colonies.

A committee was formed to draft the petition. Reflecting the geographic diversity present in so many congressional committees, the drafting group included John Adams of Massachusetts; Maryland’s Thomas Johnson; Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia; and John Rutledge of South Carolina.

Rutledge’s motion to appoint this drafting committee supplied the original intent of this action:

“Resolved, That the Committee appointed to prepare an Address to his Majesty, be instructed to assure his Majesty, that in case the colonies shall be restored to the state they were in, at the close of the late war, by abolishing the system of laws and regulations—for raising a revenue in America—for extending the powers of Courts of Admiralty—for the trial of persons beyond sea for crimes commited in America—for affecting the colony of the Massachusetts Bay and for altering the government and extending the limits of Canada, the jealousies which have been occasioned by such acts and regulations of Parliament, will be removed and commerce again restored.”

The “late war” was the French and Indian War-—these colonial leaders hoped to return to the status quo of that time—and removing the “jealousies which have been occasioned by such acts and regulations of Parliament” would allow natural commerce between the kindred peoples to be “restored.” As late as 1774, then, the Continental Congress as a whole held out hope that the colonies could avoid a break with their mother country.

The petition opens deferentially: “To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty. Most Gracious Sovereign, We your majestys faithful subjects …” The “heirs of freedom” line comes after a long litany of complaints visited upon his loyal subjects by others, not unlike the “long train of abuses and usurpations” detailed in the Declaration of Independence less then twenty months later:

“Had our creator been pleased to give us existence in a land of slavery, the sense of our condition might have been mitigated by ignorance and habit. But thanks be to his adoreable goodness, we were born the heirs of freedom, and ever enjoyed our right under the auspices of your royal ancestors, whose family was seated on the British throne, to rescue and secure a pious and gallant nation from the popery and despotism of a superstitious and inexorable tyrant. Your majesty, we are confident, justly rejoices, that your title to the crown is thus founded on the title of your people to liberty; and therefore we doubt not, but your royal wisdom must approve the sensibility, that teaches your subjects anxiously to guard the blessings, they received from divine providence, and thereby to prove the performance of that compact, which elevated the illustrious house of Brunswick to the imperial dignity it now possesses.”

In other words, the petitioners were claiming their natural rights as free Englishmen, like any on the sceptered isle or elsewhere, and extolling their king’s “auspices” in securing these rights for them, especially against “the popery and despotism of a superstitious and inexorable tyrant.” J. Michael Waller described the petition this way: “the members of the Continental Congress deferentially addressed their sovereign as any loyal subject would, politely stating their grievances often in the passive voice and blaming the problems on the king’s offices and parliament. They sought the king’s intercession to correct those problems.”

In 1895, founding fathers biographer James Tyson summarized the petition this way: “It is thus clearly seen how earnest and sincere were the colonists to secure a continuance of harmonious relations between the mother country and themselves. Could stronger and more pathetic appeals be made than are contained in these addresses to the people and the king?”

Although Benjamin Franklin, who was in London at the time, called the petition “decent, manly and properly expressed,” King George ignored the entreaty, and may not have even known about it. In April 1775, deadly combat broke out in Lexington and Concord. Still some colonial leaders held out hope of reconciliation with the king, but independence became inevitable by July 1776.

“[W]e were born the heirs of freedom” is a stirring line, alongside Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” and Thomas Jefferson’s “Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants,” two oft-plucked lines. The passionate patriot Henry really was presenting the options as he saw them, liberty or death, as he exhorted Virginia’s legislators in 1775 to supply troops to the brewing rebellion; Jefferson may or may not have literally meant what he wrote in 1787 about the tree of liberty, but one can at least hear his growing alarm at the breakdown in order underway in his new country under the weak Articles of Confederation. But the First Continental Congress was not, as a body, ready to pursue a total break with England in 1774. And so stating that they were “born the heirs of freedom” was merely an appeal in common language to their sovereign king, the “the loving father of your whole people.”

— by Fred Dews, May 2010

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sumter Shots Separate Sensibilities

The last first shot of the US Civil War occurred 150 years ago today (“last first shot” indicating that in the preceding months and years there were other incidents of violence or near-violence leading up to this seminal moment).

That there is STILL widespread belief that the primary cause of the Civil War was anything other than the perpetuation of slavery continues to amaze me. Yet a new CNN poll (pdf) finds that to be the case:

What do you think was the MAIN reason why the leaders of the southern states seceded from the U.S.? Do you think they did so mainly because they wanted slavery to remain legal in their states, or do you think that slavery was not the main reason why they seceded from the U.S.? (Apr. 9-10, 2011)

Slavery was main reason 54%

Slavery was not main reason 42%

Mixed (vol.) 1%

No opinion 3%

Forty-two percent of Americans state “slavery was not main reason,” but when you disaggregate the response based on characteristics like race, gender, income and political affiliation, the change reveals something very interesting. Here are the percentage of respondents for these categories who answered “not main reason” that diverge significantly from “42%”:

White: 47% / Non-White: 33%

Under 50: 45% / Older than 50: 40%

Democrat: 30% / Liberal: 27%

Republican: 52% / Conservative: 47%

Northeast: 39% / South: 44%

Tea Party support: 54% / Tea Party oppose: 27%

Take a look at all the specifics, but what really stands out, what really explains the difference from the mean is NOT age or income or not even geography to some extent. The top explanation of difference from the mean—the primary reason people are more or less inclined to believe that slavery was NOT the main reason for the conflict, is political ideology. The highest percent over 42 in the data come from Republicans (+10%) and Tea Party supporters (+12%).

— Fred Dews, April 12, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011 — 24 notes

Thanks, South Carolina, for Clarifying That

150 years ago today, South Carolina seceded from the United States of America. Over the next few months, 6 additional southern states joined it prior to the firing on Fort Sumter (4 more states seceded after that). The Civil War was on. Over 600,000 Americans would be dead by April 1865.

Today we hear a lot from modern-day states’ rights people who soft-pedal the causes of the Civil War while they promote their ideas of state sovereignty and proto-nullification against what they see as a too powerful federal government.

South Carolina taught us, starting 150 years ago, that the extreme solution is invalid (and, one would hope, incomprehensible). The United States is supreme, a state can’t seceded. In an interesting take on the subject, Civil War historian Glenn LaFantasie writes:

If by defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Union did not prove conclusively that secession could not be legally sustained, the point was made emphatically clear in the 1869 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (a Republican appointed by Lincoln), the court ruled that under the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the states during the American Revolution, “the Union was solemnly declared to ‘be perpetual.’ And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?

So, thanks, South Carolina, for starting a rich conversation about the merits of secession and state sovereignty. Your outburst 150 years ago really cleared things up.

— Fred Dews, December 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Pearl Harbor Day

December 7, 2010—

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s stirring words 69 years ago (tomorrow) called America to war against the empire of Japan. But as I wrote on the occasion of D-Day, memory fades as we age away from the critical moments of our lives, and direct experience is replaced with indirect knowledge. My parents were both 3 when Japanese forces attacked the U.S. base, and my mother recalls the moment when, driving with her parents, news broke through on the radio. Since a relative was stationed at the naval base, they turned around for home to find out what was happening. She has direct memory of that event.

But as the population ages, fewer Americans remember the day. Here is a story about some aging veterans who were present in Hawaii that day, who remember when their number counted in the dozens, rather than three.

I did some calculating based on U.S. Census population data and determined that, in 2004, the percentage of the U.S. population over 65 was 17%. That is to say, 17% of Americans were at least about 2-years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Five years later, that percentage dropped to 9%. Put another way, today less than 10% of Americans were alive on the date which will live in infamy.

Flags flew at half staff/mast today. We continue to say “remember,” as we should. We honor the veterans who fought and died in those times (and at all times). But as history recedes, direct memory fades and dies away. We who came after such times should seek out the stories of the older generations, so we who cannot remember can study the past, and carry what we have learned into the future.

— Fred Dews

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Civil War about the Color of Cheese

November 30, 2010 - Did you know that the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) was fought over the question of the correct color of cheese? Seems that Northerners wanted to dye their cheddar with annatto, while Southerners preferred their traditional white fromage. Despite multiple compromises being worked out over the decades leading up to 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln, who was a devoted orange cheddar man, and the crisis over the North’s orange cheese supply at Fort Sumter, forced the two sides into the bloody conflict.

Absurd? Yes, and as absurd as the notion that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery. Yet the fanciful notions of “states rights” and “sovereignty” persist in the minds of many as explications of the reasons for secession.

In today’s New York Times, there are described a number of upcoming “celebrations” in Southern states of the sesquicentennial of secession events … without acknowledging the central part slavery had in the secessionist movement. The commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization is quoted in the piece, saying, “While there were many causes of the war, our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”

Granted, once the war had begun and Union forces were marching into Virginia, loyal Southerners stood up to fight (although many poor Southern men were essentially coerced into fighting by pro-slavery firebrands). But the reason the Southern states attempted to leave the Union in the first place , and I’ll put this very simply so you can quote me, was to protect the institution of slavery. Period.

This fact is patently clear when you peruse documents from the pre-secession period of late 1860. South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” sums up the history of slavery in the U.S. and the essential role it (and opposition to it) had played up to the moment of secession. Here is an excerpt:

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

This statement, like other secession documents, affirms throughout the right to hold slaves and argues against the right of the North to prevent it. Note, too, that herein “property” = slaves.

So, again, and please quote me on this, the U.S. Civil War was fundamentally about slavery. The reasons why Southern men and women supported secession—or not—or fought in butternut/gray—or Union blue—are numerous and interesting. But if someone tries to tell you that Southern secession and the Civil War occurred for reasons primarily other than slavery, then you might as well just turn the conversation to the color of cheese, because that might turn out to be a more interesting conversation.

Fred Dews, 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010