No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

Down the Memory Troll

O’Brien’s original artwork, right, along with its appearance in Favorite Tales.

Proving yet again that one’s childhood is an endless vein of gold for a writer to mine, I have an article at Atlas Obscura about Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a 70s-era children’s book that still haunts my dreams (and those of others, apparently):

It may seem counter-intuitive to mimic the hellscapes and grotesqueries of such paintings as The Garden of Earthly Delights or The Last Judgment for a children’s book, but the plan sure worked for John O’Brien. He’s the illustrator behind Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a 32-page picture book first published in 1977 by Random House. To this day, nostalgic readers still go online to enthuse about it.

Whole thing here.

This week is Children’s Literature Week at Atlas Obscura. When I first learned AO — a site devoted to the odd or forgotten that I’ve enthused about before — was hosting the theme, I immediately thought of O’Brien and Favorite Tales.

Turns out O’Brien lives and works very close to where I grew up in South Jersey, so it was easy to meet him at his studio. He’s an incredibly generous and funny man, everything you’d imagine a children’s illustrator to be, and it was wonderful to have my questions answered about a book that’s been lodged in my brain for more than thirty years (it was also fun to discover why the book is stuck in my brain). I wish I could’ve fit all of O’Brien’s stories into the article, stories about how he landed his first agent (it involved O’Brien acting as the alibi for a couple to meet for sex) and being a young artist in New York at a time when you could go through the white pages and call art directors on the phone.

So what youthful memories should I convert into cash next? How about an essay on selling old toys and action figures on eBay, or perhaps a digression on the symbolism of Disney World to my family?

Meantime, ICYMI, here’s me reminiscing about other childhood reading material.

Switch Back

Here’s a boring update: I’ve changed the redirect for back to this here blog.

When I altered the redirect in February to point to my Contently profile, my goal was to help editors lay eyes on my clips; but I was also curious to see what the change did to my overall traffic. How are people discovering this blog? Do they type my name into the address bar or arrive here some other way?

As I’m not pitching a lot of editors these days — my focus has been on life, with occasional work on long-form stuff — I thought I’d switch the URL again. Turns out changing the redirect had no discernible effect on unique visitors and only slightly subtracted from overall hits. In fact, the placement of both and on the site’s top-25 list jumped around so much that I can’t derive any meaningful insights from the chicken bones — which I suspect is the problem with most big data. The greatest takeaway is that a lot of folks arrive here via RSS so it doesn’t make any difference where I point the URL.

I’m not one of those types who endlessly scrutinizes traffic stats or wrings his hands over SEO but it’s fun nonetheless to sometimes pop open the hood and see what’s happening underneath. On a related note, I’m sure all of the Russian and Ukrainian traffic this site receives is well intentioned.

As American as Apfelkuchen

Immigrants aboard an Atlantic liner, 1906, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–11202

Somewhere along the roller coaster of Super Bowl LI as the New England Patriots dug themselves out of a 25-point hole to win Tom Brady his thumb ring, Budweiser ran a one-minute commercial that reawakened a dormant resentment.

The commercial, with its fairly high production values, depicts a coming-to-America narrative of a young German immigrant circa 1850. His ship encounters a storm, knocking him from his bunk, which leads to stitches for a scalp wound. After having his entry papers stamped, he’s shoved on the street by nativists and told to go back home. His paddle wheeler burns and he’s forced to abandon ship, finally arriving cold and wet on the muddy banks of St. Louis. In a saloon, a stranger named Anheuser kindly buys him a beer, and our hero introduces himself as Adolphus Busch. Cut to the company logo.

The resulting #BoycottBudweiser movement went flat less than 24 hours after the bottle was opened but in the meantime, infuriated viewers — doubtlessly more than a six-pack into the evening — fired off angry tweets about Muslims, illegal immigrants, and keeping America safe, all the while disregarding the images before their bloodshot eyes that Busch was (a) very probably not-at-all Muslim, (b) entered the US legally with his paperwork in order, and (c) had designs no more sinister than brewing a low-APV lager. But such is 2017, wherein Americans are assumed to have appeared on the continent spontaneously like mice from dirty laundry and an immigrant’s story, once a plaque of honor showcased on the wall of the American Dream, is now dismissed as agenda-driven propaganda.

More than 300 years after William Penn organized a group of German “atheists” to emigrate to his colony (German law only recognized Catholics and Lutherans, and Penn recruited Quakers, Mennonites, and others), it seems German immigration still raises hackles in America, even though 49 million identified as having German ancestry in the 2013 census — more than 15 percent of the nation and the largest ancestry group tabulated.

One would imagine a story like Busch’s would suggest that twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now a president surnamed Rodriguez or Gupta or Farooq will be no less strange than one named Eisenhower; and that whatever concerns one might have about the assimilation of Hispanics and Muslims into American culture would disappear like a sauerkraut-topped hot dog eaten under a Christmas tree. But the animosity that erupted, however briefly, on February 5 toward a German immigrant story is emblematic of an American nativism once believed as extinct as a Know-Nothing but actually resurgent in the 21st century.

We may assume prejudice is always founded upon visible and obvious distinctions. Yet the English — and, in turn, their heirs among colonial America and the United States — have never needed much excuse to look down their noses at other cultures. In a 1753 letter, Benjamin Franklin complained about German immigrants that, “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation,” before tallying a menu of deficiencies.

At the battle of Shiloh, the Confederate Henry Stanley (yes, that Stanley, of Livingstone fame) was outraged that Germanic Federal soldiers had the audacity to capture him, saying, “They were apparently new troops, from such back-lands as were favoured by German immigrants; and, though of sturdy build, another such mass of savagery and stupidity could not have been found within the four corners of North America.”[1] That he felt free to write such in a memoir published in 1909 suggests sympathetic rancor still existed in the breasts of at least some of his readers a half-century later.

The Native American Party, which eventually morphed into the American Party or the “Know-Nothings” due to the semi-secretive nature of their proceedings, held their first convention in 1845. Their Declaration of Principles celebrating nativism is a scratchy wax cylinder looped endlessly during a Certain Somebody’s 2016 campaign:

  • “The almshouses of Europe are emptied upon our coast.”
  • “[T]he lives of our citizens have been attempted in the streets of our capital cities by madmen just liberated from European hospitals.”
  • “[T]he punishment of crimes has been commuted for banishment to the land of the free; and criminals in irons have crossed the ocean to be cast loose upon society on their arrival upon our shores.”

Immigration was fine and dandy in the days of Georgie W. and Tommy J., said the Know-Nothings, but now times and the types of immigrants are different. Foreigners didn’t assimilate, or if they did, they usurped and warped supposedly pristine republican processes by lobbying for their interests (e.g., New York’s Tammany Society). Democracy itself and “the civil institutions of the United States of America” stood “in imminent peril.”

Immigrants at Ellis Island, circa 1907–1917, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–26543

To be fair, contemporary worries about non-assimilation and even German separatism were not fabricated whole cloth. In the 1830s groups like the Giessen Society and New York’s Germania Society dreamed of establishing miniature Deutschlands in Texas and the wide-open west. Some of these were to be founded on the same republican principles that had booted many exiles from the Old Country in the first place; some were socialist utopianism; and still others were intended to duplicate feudal caste systems. None of the schemes amounted to much, foundering as they did upon the apathy of a population more interested in homesteading than nation-building.

In the late 1800s, German-Americans circled the wagons around their language with newspapers and preservation groups, a phenomenon to be expected among older generations anxious by fading traditions (like jellyfish, Old World languages don’t last long on American shores — today only about 40 percent of third-generation Hispanics speak Spanish and even fewer can read it).

Even so, the physical manifestation of German settlers’ support networks into towns and communities ratcheted up xenophobia among native born. In an 1849 speech, a Kentucky congressman complained about German enclaves “living in isolation; speaking a strange language, having alien manners, habits, opinions, and religious faiths, and a total ignorance of our political institutions; all handed down with German phlegm and inflexibility.” He suggested instead they emigrate to South America where they could “aid in bringing up the slothful and degenerate Spanish race; here their deplorable office is to pull us down.”[2]

As the temperance movement gained speed during the 19th century, it became increasingly unclear whether ethnic Americans were targeted for their drinking habits or whether prohibition was a way to target ethnics. German beer gardens and saloons were the suns of orbiting ethic working-class identity — part bar, part function hall, part clubhouse, and all community center. The same could be said for Irish, Italian, Jewish, and every other stripe of immigrant establishment. Through prohibition, reformers sought to dissolve ethnic identity by throwing bleach on what they saw as dirty and foreign.

German-Americans were fond of the “Continental Sunday,” that is, church services in the morning followed by an afternoon of foamy steins at a biergarten submerged in gemütlichkeit and oompah music. In 1855, the Know-Nothing mayor of Chicago, disgusted by all the brewskis and tubas around him, closed the city’s beer halls on Sundays, resulting in the Lager Beer Riot. By the First World War, the Anti-Saloon League used anti-German hysteria to curtail beer manufacture by lobbying for the Food and Fuel Control Act, which prohibited the use of grain for distillation and gave the President control of beer and wine production. It was essentially a test run for Prohibition.

The revelation that some American brewers had been funding the National German-American Alliance, a civic group, which in turn had bought a pro-Kaiser newspaper, knotted the association between Germanic culture and sedition in John Q. Public’s mind. “Everything in this country that is pro-German is anti-American,” read one League pamphlet.[3] Businesses with “German” in their name rechristened themselves, Germanophonic newspapers declined, and those who spoke both Deutsch and Englisch became strictly monolingual in public. The WASPs were allowed to keep their country clubs and Methodist meeting halls while ethnics were supposed to retreat inside their homes, stare at the walls, and be silent.

There was another reason why many Americans disliked German immigrants, one that is subtly referenced in the Budweiser commercial when young Adolphus Busch is standing at the rail of the paddle boat, dreaming his sudsy daydreams, and smiles at a black passenger. German immigrants, for whatever reason — religion, politics — were hardcore abolitionists. Those German Quakers of William Penn’s? In 1688 they issued the first recorded protest against slavery in North America, and eventually guilt-tripped their English coreligionists — who were ambivalent about the slave trade — into embracing abolitionism wholesale. Anti-slavery views became synonymous with German identity; one traveler to antebellum Texas reported never meeting a single slave-owning German. During the Civil War, German-Americans disproportionally volunteered for Northern service — although for some it was simply because they needed a job after rolling off the boat.

The Atlantic Garden, a beer garden in NYC’s East Village, 1871, New York Public Library

A question sometimes asked in the scholarship of American-German history revolves around the so-called “spiritual drain” the many waves of immigration may have had on Germany. “The Nazi assumption of power might not have been possible if so many of the ‘good’ Germans had not fled in revolt against Prussian authoritarianism, against the militarism and nationalism which began rising in Germany during the middle of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Richard O’Connor.[4] We can leave that answer to Man in the High Castle fanfic. Yet according to The Economist, German-American households have incomes above the national median, are more likely to be college graduates, and less likely to be jobless. This certainly has less to do with wizard magic in the blood than it does with a strong ethic and tradition passed through the generations, parent to child, beginning with those first immigrants. If one possesses the mindset to do a foreign country some harm — as many modern nativists seem to have — might not a strategy of “spiritual drain” be attractive? Suppose for a minute that if we took all the Syrian doctors and Iraqi professors and anyone else who has the gumption and wherewithal to show up here, PhD or otherwise, wouldn’t that be to our advantage and to the old country’s detriment?

The fickleness of the mob can turn on 10 pfennigs, and as #BoycottBudweiser proved, the old prejudice against Germans is still a warm ember that can be used to light fires against other groups today. Nativists will cherry-pick facts and deploy statistics but ultimately theirs is an emotional, even hysterical, ideology: if a beer commercial about white immigration unhinges you, then no amount of reason will soothe your terror of the brown hordes.

The German philosopher Carl Schmitt (and BTW *cough cough* a Nazi) believed that the political identity of a group coalesces around what its members believe is normal and right; and what is normal and right to them is itself defined in opposition to the customs and morals of another group. By defining their identity as a denial of their own immigrant roots — or at least by crowning their genealogies with white Stetsons — modern nativists defend themselves from every criticism: to point out deficiencies in their beliefs or toward history for counter-arguments is, on a certain level, to attack their very identity, which is almost always fated to fail. Ask any stand-up comedian and she’ll tell you that you it’s tough to mock a deeply held idea without also mocking the people who hold it.

My dad, who as a lifelong Democrat and civil servant probably has the most reason to feel anger at current events, remains blithe and unfazed these days. This too shall pass is a common saying of his, a result of seventy-odd years of human observation. This too shall pass — or, as I like to paraphrase, I will shit on your grave. Today’s outrage over bathrooms is often too inconsequential or boring to merit a sentence in tomorrow’s high-school history text. We German-Americans may have faded into the wallpaper but we’re still here nevertheless, still winning simply by hanging around centuries after the haters passed out blotto on the couch. There’s no reason why anyone else can’t do likewise.

[1] Henry M. Stanley, The Autobiography of Henry Morton Stanley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 200–201.

[2] Richard O’Connor, The German-Americans: An Informal History (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 75.

[3] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 32.

[4] O’Connor, 9.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Mourning Dove

I have a weird Western called “Mourning Dove” in the anthology Principia Ponderosa, now available.

She rose and walked to the press. “My husband started this newspaper to compete with the other established dailies in town. Every one of them printed a single edition per day. He realized he could gain an advantage by running two editions every day, and jump the competition by putting a morning edition on the streets for folks to read while they ate their bacon. But publishing two newspapers every single day is hard work, and doesn’t leave time for much else. So he invented this press to write the morning edition for him.” She patted the metal. “Thing is, he went ahead and somehow made a machine that wrote news before it happened, saving him the trouble of having to write about it afterwards.”

Certain recent aspects of my personal life have entailed me staring through a telescope into my future and I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen. I asked myself, Would anybody really want to know what lay ahead if they could?

Principia Ponderosa is available for Kindle and in paperback. The art above isn’t the cover; editor Juliana Rew used it for flavor when she sent around her submissions call and I love its digital whimsy, located somewhere between deco and 16-bit.

Open Loops

Office Politics by Shag. Copyright is his, illustration reproduced for discussion purposes only, please don’t sue.

Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.

Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.

It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.

A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.

“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably “Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.

In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.

When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.