Monday, November 21, 2016

Three Writers Along the Way

Falling into the category of interesting connections, our recent journey from Florida to New York led me to the memorials for three fascinating writers. 

 Paul Hemphill

In Atlanta, our first stop was Manuel’s Tavern, a famous watering hole for  journalists and politicians.  I wanted to see the memorial for my old friend Paul Hemphill.  Paul was a Southern writer and a journalist who wrote numerous books about the region and its diverse culture.  His most famous books dealt with subjects such as Hank Williams and NASCAR.  Others dealt with his personal experiences, such as trying to hike the Appalachian Trail with his son and playing minor league baseball. My particular favorite is his autobiography, Leaving Birmingham, in which he traces his awakening as an intelligent and progressive southerner.   

W.J. Cash

In Charlotte, walking with a friend through Uptown amid all the new construction, we were attracted to an interesting building dating back to the early 20th Century.  Beside the front door was a plaque noting that it was once the residence of W.J. Cash, an editor of the long defunct Charlotte News and author of The Mind of the South, one of the most insightful explorations of southern culture ever written, a book that has remained in print for more than 75 years and is a staple of Southern History. Published in 1941, it provides some extraordinary insights into the region as it began to emerge from the torment of the Civil War.

William Cullen Bryant

Finally, during the last week of our American journey, we visited friends in Roslyn on Long Island.  Founded in the 17th Century, the heart of the village still retains the charm of colonial America.  On a driving tour, we stopped at Cedarmere, the home of William Cullen Bryant.  I remembered him from an old collection of American poetry, which included Bryant’s most famous work, ”Thanatopsis.”  While he spent most of his life editing the New York Evening Post, his poetry explored the connections between nature and the human spirit just as the Industrial Revolution was being born, an event that changed the world.

Three writers, all working journalists, each confronting important issues of their generation, each providing food for thought as we continued our journey.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Disappointment in Grosvenor Square

I made my first trip to London forty years ago this December.  As part of that trip, I took a half-day bus tour, a sort of quick orientation to the city.  During the tour, we passed the U.S. Embassy on Grosvenor Square in central Mayfair.

Grosvenor Square is a place that has been central to America’s presence in Great Britain since the beginning of our republic.  John Adams established our first mission there in the late 18th Century, Eisenhower had his headquarters there during World War II, and today the square is dominated by a statue of President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as a September 11 Memorial Garden and the Eagle Squadrons Memorial, commemorating an RAF unit that included many Americans.  It is also where Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for President in 1952 and 1956, suffered a fatal heart attack.

The current embassy was built in the 1960’s and stretches across the entire western side of the square.  It is a massive building that, like all embassies, is sovereign territory, a sanctuary within a foreign land.  Since my first trip, I’ve been comforted by the fact that as a United States citizen, should I need assistance, the embassy is there to help, something I have not needed until our recent arrival in the United Kingdom.

It wasn’t a major problem, not something I expected the embassy staff to resolve.  I just wanted a friendly face and a little direction on how I might resolve it.

With these thoughts, I took the underground from our temporary residence in the Penn Club off Russell Square to Bond Street and walked to Grosvenor Square.  Along the way I took a photograph of FDR’s statue and the Stars and Stripes flying atop the embassy.  I had a warm feeling that this would be my last opportunity to stand on U.S. territory for many months to come.

That, however, was where the good feelings began to fade.  The street in front of the embassy is barricaded.  There is an iron fence around the building and access is provided through one of two small glass buildings outside the walls of this massive fortress – one for those seeking visas to the U.S. and one for American citizens. 

With my passport, Global Entry card (I mention this because there was a big Global Entry sign beside the door) and proof of my service in the U.S. Marine Corps in my pocket, I confidently approached the appropriate entrance.  There I pushed a white button and waited.  Looking through the class, the inside looked very much like a TSA security checkpoint, with an x-ray machine and metal detector. 
After a short wait, a man in a nondescript security uniform – no Marine guards here - leaned out through the door and asked me what I wanted.  I explained my problem.  He leaned in and out several times, speaking with another person, and finally handed we a tiny piece of paper with a phone number.  That was that. 

There was no friendly American face or voice, no opportunity to stand on American soil in a foreign country, and no real help with my problem.  I thought about the film Bourne Identity and how Matt Damon’s character Jason Bourne had to fight his way out of the U.S. Embassy in Paris, so perhaps I was fortunate to have been denied entry.  Regardless, I was disappointed.  My rather naïve view of what I thought was one of the key roles of our embassy was destroyed.

Intellectually I understand that we live in a world filled with terrorists, but as a historian I understand that this is nothing new.  I understand that security is an important concern, especially internationally.  I understand that my personal problem that morning would not have budged the needle on the State Department’s priority meter.   I understand that we live in a terribly divisive political environment in which fear seems to be the one common denominator, keeping friends and relatives at arm’s length.  I understand that the world is far more congested than it was back when John Adams set up housekeeping on Grosvenor Square in 1785, establishing America’s diplomatic relationship with the Court of St. James.

Yes, I understand all of that, and yet that innocent young man inside me, the one who first came to London forty years ago, still found himself wondering why.  Why was the American Embassy in London unwilling to offer even a modicum of help to an American citizen in a foreign land?

Intellectually I understand, but emotionally I found myself remembering the opening lines of a poem I memorized in high school and have never forgotten.  It’s titled “My Native Land,” and was written by the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott not long after Adams’ time in London.

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

Sadly, that is how I felt as I walked back through Grosvenor Square, away from the American Embassy, passing the statue of FDR, one of my favorite Presidents, and passing the house where John Adam once lived.  I felt like a man without a country.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Visit to the Carter Center

During our recent visit to Atlanta, we walked to the Carter Center, a short distance from where we were staying.  The museum and library are located in Freedom Park, a tranquil area woven into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhoods.  The center is surrounded with ponds, a rose garden and numerous places to simply sit and enjoy nature in the midst of a dynamic metropolis.  In innumerable ways the center seems to capture the spiritual essence of the former President and First Lady.

One of the most important features of Freedom Park is a trail connecting the Carter Center with the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, symbolically uniting all the citizens of the South, regardless of color.

Personally, I have long believed that Jimmy Carter is our most underappreciated modern President, a man whose heart was in the right place and who continues to devote his energies toward the goals of peace and human dignity.  I also believe that the biggest weakness of his administration was the quality of some of his staff – the Georgia mafia as they were called back then – who went to Washington with him.  Sadly, many of them took the values of the Old South with them, not Carter’s vision for a better world.

I lived in Tallahassee when Carter was elected governor of Georgia, replacing the openly racist Lester Maddox, perhaps the most repugnant Georgia governor in modern times.  I have fond memories of Carter’s campaign for President in 1976, because it was the first time I voted for a winning presidential candidate … and the last until I voted for Obama in 2008. 

Carter is perhaps the one modern President who grew up in a world I understand.  Our families have much in common.  Like Carter, my family farmed the same red clay that fills the fields of South Georgia and North Florida.  Like Carter, I was raised a Southern Baptist.  And, like Carter, I am a southerner who has struggled to overcome the racism and anti-intellectualism of the region. 

The Carter White House is also the only one I was given an opportunity to enter.  A college friend from Florida State was one of his speechwriters and treated me to lunch at The White House Mess. Certainly a memorable experience.

Touring the Carter Center I was reminded of the enormous responsibility that goes with being President and was struck by a quote by Rosalynn about how she had to learn to get used to the fact that one crisis simply follows another, that they never stopped coming.

Despite his early retirement in 1981, Carter did not retreat to the golf course.  While the next President, Ronald Reagan, took the country in a very different direction, Jimmy and Rosalynn stayed true to their values.  They continue to work for positive change, facing challenges such as affordable housing, universal health care, quality education, human dignity and world peace.

Change, of course, is never easy.  It is a perpetual two step, forward and backward, forward and backward.  We only hope that each step forward is a little bit bigger than the backward step that follows. 

While there are some who still fail to appreciate the contributions of the Carters, especially in their native South, I believe history will ultimately come to recognize the numerous accomplishments that they’ve made toward building a better world.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Monday, September 19, 2016

A View from Beyond the Wall

Originally published by the History News Network on September 19, 2016.

For most of the month of August I lived beyond the wall.  I know that sounds a bit like the opening line from a Stephen King novel, but for those who follow Presidential politics, it refers to one of the many machinations of Donald Trump , the one in which he promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.  Anti-immigrant rhetoric is one of the cornerstones of his campaign.
Trump is a devotee of what an old friend of mine, an Atlanta PR legend, has long promoted – the idea that, “It is better to be known as the village idiot than not to be noticed at all.”  Thus no statement is too ridiculous if it keeps your name in the headlines.  Such a strategy is not new, it’s been around for centuries.
During World War I in Britain, there was a Trump-like character who mesmerized the British public in much the same manner.  His name was Horatio Bottomley, a businessman, a journalist, a Member of Parliament and a crook who ultimately ended up in prison for fraud.  Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw explained Bottomley’s success as, “The man gets his popularity by telling people with sufficient bombast just what they think themselves and therefore want to hear.”  This is clearly Trump’s strategy. He is long on bluster and short on specifics.  He allows his supporters to fill in the blanks – drawing upon their own personal opinions about what is wrong with our country and what will “make America great again.”
Nineteenth Century America had an earlier version of Trump.  P.T. Barnum, famous for his circus and celebrated hoaxes, was more than the showman extraordinaire.  He too dabbled in politics, serving in both the Connecticut legislature and as mayor of Bridgeport.  Like Trump, Barnum was honest about his primary goal in life.  He openly admitted that everything he did was designed to make money.  In fact, he was a proponent of what he liked to call “profitable philanthropy,” doing good deeds that made him money.
Our world is filled with con artists, flim-flam men, hucksters, profiteers and charlatans.  Bottomley, Barnum and Trump are just three prominent examples.  Their fame and fortune are based on an idea erroneously attributed to Barnum – “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Living beyond the wall, even for a short period of time, offers a welcome respite from Trump’s outlandish oratory.  It also provides a reality check on one of his central campaign tenets,  that we need to be protected from immigrants, especially those from Mexico.
Mexico is a wonderful country and, in my experience, the Mexican people are honest, hardworking and family-focused.  They are not rapists and murders as Trump suggests.  The vast majority of Mexicans are good people, with the same basic needs and desires as their neighbors to the north.
Sadly, too many Trump supporters fail to recognize that they are being sold a wall that is as absurd as the fraudulent selling of the old Brooklyn Bridge.  The problems that make them so violently angry are not caused by their fellow North Americans, they are created by greedy, dishonest con men like Donald Trump.
Thinking about Trump’s proposed wall, I am reminded of President Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 West Berlin speech when he called upon the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down that wall.”  In that speech, Reagan also noted that “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.” 

President Reagan was not afraid of Mexico.   Perhaps we should take his advice and build a more open relationship with our neighbors to the south.  The odds are good that such change would be beneficial to both nations.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Two Ends to the Road

Having just completed the journey from San Miguel de Allende, in Central Mexico, to St. Petersburg, I am again reminded of a rather morbid connection between the two communities and their association with two fascinating fellows from modern American literature.
In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel On the Road was published.  Heavily autobiographical, it is the tale of a young man’s journey, the people he meets and the friendships he makes.  It is a timeless adventure of awakening that explores the diversity of American culture and is certainly one of the most significant pieces of literature to have been produced by the Beat Generation.  The two main characters are Sal Paradise, based on Kerouac, and Dean Moriarty, based on his close friend Neal Cassady. 
Like a great many individuals of my generation, I was introduced to On the Road as an undergraduate in college.  It was during the middle of the 1960’s.  I had been reading the novel and commented to one of my roommates about it being a great book.  The roommate looked at me with a sort of comical expression and said, “The guy who wrote it hangs out in the Blue Room,” a now defunct St. Pete bar we frequented back then.  That’s where I met Kerouac, not that there was much to the meeting.  Although a famous author, Kerouac was by then very much a loner who drank heavily and seemed to be lost in his own world, at least that’s the impression he gave me.
About this same time Neal Cassady was adding to his literary fame as one of the drivers of “Furthur”, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus that took the “Merry Band of Pranksters” from San Francisco to New York, a journey celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Kerouac and Cassady were unique individuals who lived their lives on the edge, perhaps too close to the edge, because both lives were about to be cut short.
In early 1968, Cassady went to San Miguel for a wedding, where such celebrations are often wild and crazy.  Church bells ring, participants parade through the streets, accompanied by musical groups, giant dancing puppets and fireworks.  There is lots of tequila and wedding parties are often noted for the massive quantity of alcohol they consume.  On the first day of our recent visit we saw or heard six different wedding celebrations, each more clamorous than the previous.
There are conflicting stories about what happened to Cassady after the wedding he attended.  Ultimately he began walking the railroad tracks to the neighboring town of Dolores Hidago.  He was found on the tracks in a coma, suffering from exposure, and rushed to a local hospital where he died.  The actual cause of his death is still not fully understood, although drugs and alcohol were certainly important factors.  Cassady was not quite 42 years old.
The following year, in late 1969, Kerouac’s alcohol abuse caught up with him. Coughing up blood, he was rushed to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.  He died there a few hours later, less than two years after Cassady.  Kerouac was just 47.
Back then, St. Petersburg was known more as a retirement community than a party town.  In the 1950’s Ian Fleming explained in his novel Live and Let Die, how in downtown St. Pete the “Oldsters” would “just sit in the sun and gossip and doze.  It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false teeth.” Certainly not the dynamic St. Pete of today.
It is now almost half a century since the passing of the Kerouac and Cassady, lives shortened by the drugs and alcohol that helped to make their experiences in On the Road so fascinating.  Unlike most of their contemporaries, they will not be forgotten.  They still live on together, crisscrossing the county in Kerouac’s famous novel – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – young adventurers, certainly two of the more fascinating characters in American literature.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Friday, August 19, 2016

Comfortable Old Books

Now that I am no longer teaching, and thus not having to read in preparation for the classes I am teaching, my reading has reverted to the genre I enjoy most – Twentieth Century British novels.  My current project is to read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in order of publication.  For those who are not familiar with Murdoch, she was an Irish novelist and philosopher who wrote 26 novels between 1954 and 1995.
I was introduced to Murdoch by Elizabeth Dipple, a witty and outspoken Murdoch scholar and my favorite English professor when I was in graduate school at Northwestern.  In 2008, The Times of London ranked Murdoch twelfth on their list of the top 50 British writers since 1945.  Personally, I would put her higher.

At the moment, I am midway through Murdoch’s sixth novel, An Unofficial Rose.  Unlike some of my friends, I do not race through novels. I prefer to read slowly, savoring, digesting, and making friends with the characters.  As I approach the end of a novel, I often read slower, caught between wanting to know what will happen and not wanting to say goodbye to the characters. 
I tend to buy most of my books from, a consortium of used booksellers, and rarely pay more than three or four dollars for a book, including shipping.  It is not as much fun as browsing through the stacks of an old bookstore, but such places are becoming rare.

The copy of An Unofficial Rose that I am currently reading is an old hardback published by Viking in 1962, the year the novel was released.  This particular copy spend most of its existence in the Caroline County Public Library on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, until someone there decided it was no longer needed, stamped “discarded” on the inside cover and sent it off to a bookseller who sold it to me.

While many prefer e-books, I do not.  There is something comforting about curling up with an old book – the soft, well-worn feel of the pages, the dusty smell, and the underlined passages and margin notes from previous readers all provide a connection that the e-book screen does not.  Maybe this is the historian in me.  I also love spending hours in old archives.

Another especially nice aspect of reading British novels while living outside of the United States is that they often add to the expatriate experience.  The Brits had an empire that spanned the globe and provided citizens of all classes the opportunity to explore the world and its enormously diverse cultures. In An Unofficial Rose for example, there is talk of Singapore and Delhi, of beautiful young French women and Italian artists.

Mexico was a part of the old Spanish Empire, although control of Florida and other parts of the Caribbean shifted between Britain and Spain more than once. Here, while the influence of the United States continues to grow, one stills find a remarkable blend of the old Spanish Empire and the pre-European world of Native Americans.

Personally, I do not travel to take American culture with me.  I travel because I want to escape the oppression of American culture, something which is getting more difficult.  I want to see more of the world, understand the perspective of those who live outside the U.S., and perhaps have the opportunity to share my experience with those who want to travel but cannot.

For me, old books make comfortable traveling companions because they offer perspectives from different times and places that simply add to the experience.

©2016 David Lee McMullen

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Back in Mexico

Returning to San Miguel de Allende after an absence of seven years is an interesting experience.   We are staying in the same casita where we lived for almost a year back in 2008-2009, so in a way it is as if we never left.  We are in Centro, behind La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, San Miguel’s parish church and the community’s most recognizable landmark.  

Some of the more noticeable changes are the increase in the number of tourists, mostly Mexicans, trendy shops and restaurants, new hotels and cars.  We arrived on a Friday afternoon, the start of the weekend, and as we entered the heart of the community, it seemed as if we had been ensnared in a giant traffic jam.  What makes this fascinating is that there are no traffic signals or signs in the historic parts of town, thus drivers must compromise at intersections, respecting others in order to prevent accidents.  Congress could learn a lot from their example.

San Miguel has also become a popular wedding destination.  On our first afternoon we saw, or heard, six wedding celebrations.  These are colorful events that include the ringing of church bells, musicians, giant dancing figures and intoxicated revelers parading with the bride and groom through the streets surrounding La Parroquia.  Some even conclude with fireworks.  San Miguel is one of those places that loves any excuse for a party.

There is still some of old Mexico left.  Recently, as I walked home from the grocery store, I approached an old Mexican man walking slowly with a cane.  The sidewalks here are narrow and composed of gray and pink stone blocks, the streets of cobblestones, so walking is not always easy.  Drawing near, I stepped aside.  As I cleared the way for him, his face brighten with a big smiled and he said in a warm and friendly tone, “Adios Amigo” (“Go with God my friend”).  It was a simple exchange of courtesies, a sharing of respect that made the day a little nicer for both of us I suspect.  Interestingly, the following afternoon I again stepped aside for two Gringo women.  They, however, did not even acknowledge my existence. 

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Too Much Stuff

As we prepare to embark on our travels, we are once again getting rid of stuff – selling it, giving it away, donating it and throwing it out.  It is always a wonderful feeling to lighten the load.  We’ve done it twice before, so this time it’s easy.  We know how to do it and we don’t have nearly as much stuff.

America’s consumer culture exploded after World War II, when all those GI’s came home and began buying houses in the suburbs.  Back then the average middle-class home was modest, nothing fancy, two bedrooms and a bath, not at all like the McMansions we see today.

The odd thing is that the size of the average family is smaller today than it was back them.  So why are houses bigger?  The answer is simply, we need room for all our stuff.  Think about the people who keep a $40,000 car in the driveway because their garage is crammed full.

Okay, I understand.  Stuff accumulates and suddenly the house is overflowing.  We’ve all seen those reality shows where people live in a jungle of junk and need professionals to hack their way in and haul away the clutter.

Stuff becomes a responsibility.  We can’t get rid of it because it once belonged to Aunt Beulah or the grandchildren might want it someday.  We feel guilty just thinking about discarding it.  We can’t take a vacation because if we’re gone too long someone might break in and steal some of it.  We can’t afford a vacation because the cost of maintaining our giant storage locker of a house continues to climb.  Ultimately we find ourselves being held prisoner by our stuff.

That’s why getting rid of it feels so good.  It’s like being released from prison. 

For us, traveling about, living in other people’s houses, enjoying their stuff, can be environmentally satisfying.  If we need something, we buy it, second hand if possible, and then when it is time to move on we sell it or donate it to a local charity shop.  We try to keep stuff moving with the hope that it will be useful to others.  It just seems like a nice way to share.

We know plenty of people with big houses overflowing with stuff.  If that makes them happy, great, but I suspect that some of them may secretly dream of the day when a big fire cleans out the house so that they too can escape the responsibility.

©2016 David Lee McMullen

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Preparing to Hit the Road Again

It has been six years since we returned to the U.S. from Scotland, initially intending to spend a few months in Florida and then hit the road again.  Those plans were interrupted by an invitation to teach again at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.  Now, as I prepare to depart USFSP for the third time, we’ve decided to become vagabonds once again. 

Interestingly, as I finish teaching my final course – ”Great Britain and the Great War” – we are making plans to return to the United Kingdom.  In late October, we will cross the Atlantic the old fashion way, aboard the Queen Mary 2, a journey we’ve made once before and enjoyed immensely.  Upon arrival we will visit London, where we will stay at the Penn Club, the World War One Quaker ambulance drivers’ club. 

Since my days as a postgraduate at the University of Aberdeen, where I researched Scottish workers during the early Twentieth Century, I have been fascinated with the First World War and the dramatic affect it had on the British people.  So expect some of my future blog entries to focus on the topic.

However, before we head for Europe, we will test our traveling skills with a few weeks in San Miguel de Allende, the area of Mexico where their struggle for independence from Spain began and where we lived for a year.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a remarkable place to visit.

Stay tuned.  This is going to be an interesting journey.

© David Lee McMullen, July 24, 2016