Thursday, December 21, 2006


[Today's blog, getting in the Holiday spirit, is given over to an article found on the front page of today's WASHINGTON POST, concerning one Aldon D. Nielsen, someone whose name differs by one letter, and who himself differs by one generation, from your humble servant.]

Mastering a Branch of HistoryAmateur Photographer Has Focused On Decades of the National Christmas Tree

By Timothy DwyerWashington Post Staff WriterThursday, December 21, 2006; A01

Each year since 1963, Aldon D. Nielsen, 84, has taken pictures of the National Christmas Tree. He's trudged out there in the snow and sleet and rain, on frigid nights and perfectly clear star-kissed nights. He has photographed fat trees, skinny trees and one tree that had to be surgically repaired because the train carrying it to Washington derailed.

Over the years, he has become the nation's leading expert on the history of the tree. When the tree is lighted each year, it marks a moment in the country's history, the ceremony a reflection of what is going on in America and the world. Jimmy Carter, the sweater president, had energy-efficient lights. Richard Nixon pulled the switch to light the tree while being hooted by Vietnam War protesters. Ronald Reagan, after an assassination attempt, lighted the tree from the White House instead of the Ellipse for security reasons. During the Iran hostage crisis, the tree was dark except for a star on top out of respect for the captured Americans. On Dec. 18, 1980, Carter lighted the tree for only 417 seconds, one for each day the hostages had spent in captivity. On Inauguration Day in 1981 when the hostages were released, Reagan ordered the tree redecorated in time for their return home.

Throughout the years, presidents have moved in and out of the White House, but Nielsen has made the trip from his home in Northern Virginia to record the image of the tree. A self-trained photographer who worked for the Department of the Interior for most of his life, Nielsen is believed to be the only person in the country with such an extensive archive of photos of the National Christmas Tree. He has his collection on a slide show, compete with music and a historical narrative. He has gone from film to digital to video, from middle age to old age, from father to grandfather to great-grandfather, and all the while kept up his mission.
He is the unofficial-official National Christmas Tree photographer. The National Park Service found out about him about seven years ago and scooped up his photos and put them on its Web site as part of its year-by-year history of the tree.

"I think it is a very unique project that he has undertaken," said Terry Adams, a spokesman for the National Park Service. "It takes some time, and he is devoted to it. I would venture to guess that there is probably no one in the country better prepared to speak about that tree than he is."

Nielsen, a native of Nebraska who served in the U.S. Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, took his first picture of the National Christmas Tree just a few months after moving to Arlington. He, his wife, Vivian, and their four children arrived in 1963 from Denver, where he worked for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in a variety of positions, including chief of operations. The tree was lighted later than usual that year because President Lyndon B. Johnson said the lights should not be turned on during the 30-day mourning period for President John F. Kennedy.

"I heard about the lighting of the tree, and so we went in for it," he recalled. "I parked my car on 18th Street. I didn't have a tripod, so I just set the camera on the roof of the car and took the picture that way. I remember it was icy."

He came back the next December and the December after that. "It was more of a family outing than anything else," he said. He took his camera each year and shot the photograph at dusk or just after. Some time after his third or fourth Christmas in Washington, a news release came across his desk about a photo that was available of President Calvin Coolidge lighting the Christmas tree in 1923. The National Park Service was one floor down from his office. He paid a visit and got a copy of the picture. "I realized just how connected to history the tree was," he said.

Soon enough, the annual trip to the White House became more of a vocation than a family trip. His children grew up, his wife stopped going with him, and still he continued to make the trip, alone, as he did this month.

In the mid-1970s, Nielsen began going to nursing homes and retirement communities to present the slide show of his collection. When the tree lights went from the traditional on-off type to computer-controlled lights that fade in and out, Nielsen adjusted by going to video. "I used time-lapse photography, and with the lights changing all the time, it didn't work." Each year, he would drop by the Park Service in the fall and pick up information about the selected tree so he could incorporate the details into his slide show. Environmentalists persuaded the Park Service to stop using cut trees and go to a live tree. The first couple of live trees did not survive very long.

"In my narration," Nielsen said, "I'd tell people how difficult it is to live in Washington and that some of the trees didn't make it."

Nielsen will be 85 years old in less than a month, and he is not sure how long he can continue the project that has made him a national treasure of sorts. He is in great shape. His children gave him a pair of walking shoes and a pedometer when he retired, and he said he has walked more than 10,000 miles since. He is thinking that he would like to have the youngest of his three sons take over the project for him. It would be nice to keep it in the family. He hasn't told his son about the plan yet.

On a recent day, he stood in the bright sunshine and raised his video camera toward the tree and shot for a few minutes. He wanted to get a little video of the tree in daylight for a change. He stopped recording, reviewed the video in the viewfinder and then flipped the switch to "record" once again. "Too much sky in the shot," he said. And then he went back to his labor of love, photographing the nation's Christmas tree. Maybe he's not ready to give up the job after all.

[You can see some of the Christmas Tree photos, read the histories and note yet another incorect spelling of the family name here: -- and, to round out the story, below is a photo of Nielsen, taken some years ago by another amateur.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Today's blog is bedecked with the photos of conservative luminaries of years gone by to make one very simple point, that Mark Bauerline's representations of our television past are not to be trusted.
This week's issue of THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION features a lengthy essay by Bauerline, who is on the faculty of Emory Univeristy, titled HOW ACADEME SHORTCHANGES CONSERVATIVE THINKING. Yes, this is the same Professor Bauerline who has held forth on this same subject in these same pages before. It would seem that no matter how often conservative thinkers complain that they are unjustly marginalized in the world of mainstream academia, the academic mainstream will go out of its way to afford them prime space in which to lodge their complaints.
But what standards of journalism are in place at THE CHRONICLE, and what standards of argument are being taught by Bauerline? Here, reproduced exactly, are the third and fourth sentences of Bauerline's essay:
"Thirty years ago, the only place to find conservatives on television was FIRING LINE, William F. Buckley's urbane talk show. Today they appear on MEET THE PRESS and 60 MINUTES."
And here we come to the fellows here depicted. Thirty years ago, conservative thinkers appeared on, gulp, 60 MINUTES and MEET THE PRESS. Anybody who has enjoyed the original Saturday Night Live's parodies of the 60 MINUTES segment known as POINT - COUNTERPOINT knows how little sense that routine would make without the conservative half of the joust. Week after week, 60 MINUTES gave us James Kilpatrick, he of the red sweater, as he lobbed inanities at the hapless liberals caught in the studio with him. Kilpatrick also held forth routinely, along with several other conservtaives, on AGRONSKY AND COMPANY, a show I watched for all those years that we didn't have cable in Washington, D.C. Kilpatrick had started out as a newspaper man in Virginia, where, as an editor in Richmond, he argued forcefully for the continuation of segregation and editorialized on the inferiority of African Americans. His reward for this was being brought up to the major leagues, where he appeared on both local and network television for many years.
And then there's Robert Novak, who even thirty years ago could be seen on MEET THE PRESS. Novak sometimes scoops the major papers with revelations spoon-fed to him by the Bush administration, and then again, sometimes he just gets in a huff and walks off the stage. The point is, and Bauerline knows this, Novak's television presence stretches back decades.

Conservatives have been on television from its infancy, and the likes of Novak and Kilpatrick were simply following in the path broken by such people as Joe Pyne, pictured at the top of today's blog. Pyne was in every way a prototype for the O'Reillys that plague us today. In the pre-cable era, his show was in national syndication and could be seen in nearly every major metropolitan area. Long before Novak had ever shouted down a guest, Pyne was egging his live audience on to frenzies of vituperation against all things liberal. Pyne, too, would have been on the air thirty years ago, had he not dropped dead in 1970 while his show was still enjoying top ratings.

Bauerline's essay in THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reviews discourse that, as he puts it, "darkens the fate of the conservative tradition."

What could darken the fate of conservative thought in America more surely than his own disregard for the most elemental standards of demonstrable truth?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Walter Benn Michaels's Reading problem, and Ours -- Or, In Whichness

I don't really know enough about string theory to be able to offer readers a clear explanation of the implausibly intersecting parallel universes Michael Bérubé and I inhabit. Visitors to the second floor of Burrowes Hall at Penn State University have noted that I appear to be the more tightly wound string, while there is observably greater gravity (and several more dimensions) at his end of the corridor. This has produced any number of strange effects in the years since we both arrived at Penn state, most notably the inexplicable disappearance of people who pause at the T intersection of our hallway while trying to figure out just where the department of Spanish might be.

All of which has to do with why I wasn't at the talk by Walter Benn Michaels, sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa, which Michael discusses over at his estimable blog, which commentary you can locate by clicking on his name right there on the right wing of my blog. (OK, my left -- I guess it is a matter of standpoint after all.) Several people on campus have wondered about this. I did, after all, attend and comment upon visits by David Horowitz and Dinesh D'Souza. I was out of town when Fred Jameson was here. Is there something about Benn Michaels that kept me away?

Well, yes -- there is -- but the real reason I didn't attend was a matter of Walter's personal safety, which gets us back to that weird parallel universe thing and the vanishing visitors to the Spanish department. The thing of it is, if Michael Bérubé and I were to attend the same talk by Walter Benn Michaels, so the theory goes (and Walter, you will recall, is against theory), there is a real possibility that the space-time continuum would warp so drastically that a wormhole would open up beneath the podium, sucking Walter through the 17th dimension and reproducing him in the office of the President of George Washington University, in essence, dumping him in the lap of Steven Knapp. This would not be good for Walter's molecular structure, though it would surely get some news coverage for Penn State.

This whole parallel universe thing seems to have started one day in 1969. I had just finished reading CONFRONTATION AT OCEAN-HILL BROWNSVILLE, edited by Maurice Bérubé and Marilyn Gittell. The struggles documented in that book had been much in the news as I was making my way through my own public schooling. Indeed, it virtually coincided with my High School years, and so it was a book I read with real interest as a snapshot of the times I was living in. But it seems I was living in more times (?) than I had realized. Immediately after putting down the Bérubé and Gittell book, I picked up a Twayne volume. (This, too, was to have a strange resonance in discussions at Penn State many years later, but that's a story for another blog.) The book was titled HARLEM GALLERY: Book 1: The Curator. I'd picked this book up because I'd heard of its author, poet Melvin B. Tolson, or "M.B. Tolson" as he'd been introduced at the Library of Congress just as I was completing Junior High School. There had been a little item in one of the local papers in Washington, D.C., noting the visit of Tolson to D.C., a visit that was occasioned by his reading at the Library of Congress and a quick visit to the Lyndon Johnson White House. Johnson's connections to poetry aren't much spoken of, but the one time I'd seen that president up close was when he showed up unexpectedly at a memorial for Carl Sandburg held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anyway, I had been wanting to read Tolson ever since seeing that note, and now that I was out of high school and employed, I could purchase my own copy of HARLEM GALLERY.

But here's the thing; as I read Tolson's book, I kept having this eerie feeling that it was somehow connected to what I had just been reading about Ocean-Hill Brownsville (a neighborhood that James Baldwin had also written about much earlier). -- OR, more accurately, I had the feeling that the Tolson poems would SOME DAY find a connection to the Bérubé & Gittell book.

I didn't think much more about that for some time, what with college and my draft board and actually getting drafted to distract me from such things -- but some years later and far away in Charlottesville, Virginia, it all came rushing back to me.

I'd driven down from D.C. with my good friend Ross Taylor, who was going to visit his father, Peter. Peter Taylor, so far as I could tell, was busy on a life-long project to renovate and live in every house in the Shenandoah Valley. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he found time to knock out books like A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS, THE OLD FOREST, A WOMAN OF MEANS and others. It made me wonder if Ross's father had a busy doppelganger or himself traveled wormholes to different dimensions of time and literature.

So, there I am sitting in a cafe in Charlotesville, listening to Ross read me a poem about cows and telephone poles, when my eyes drifted up over Ross's shoulder and out the window of the cafe. Into my line of sight walked a youngish fellow with really curly hair clutching, for some reason, three drumsticks. It wasn't the odd number of drumsticks that arrested my attention, though, it was the fact that I could see peeping out of his jacket pocket a paperback copy of Melvin B. Tolson's LIBRETTO FOR THE REPUBLIC OF LIBERIA. "That's unusual," I caught myself saying out loud. "Not at all," Ross replied. "I saw that happen to a cow once up the road from my father's third house." I didn't set Ross straight on my frame of reference. I just sat there wondering why I felt like I'd been there before, or like I would have been there before, had there been a there in Charlottesville.

I've since come to understand that there is a lot of strange physics in the Tolson universe (just ask Jon Woodson), which is why nobody has ever been allowed to hold a Tolson conference anywhere, though Denzel Washington, who works out there in the land of particle accelerators, hopes to make a Tolson movie. Still, convergence happens. Which is how Penn State, entirely without knowing that it was doing so, became the only university in the world to host two Tolson scholars in the same department -- and that's why there's this peculiar space-time warp in Burrowes Hall that even requires that visitors walk up a flight of stairs to get from the second floor to the second floor.

And, as I've said, this is why I thought it unwise that both Micheal and I should attend Walter Benn Michaels's talk -- It was going to be trouble enough with Michael confronting Benn Michaels --

Still, I confess to some surprise when I read Michael's subsequent blog entry and learned that the people organizing Walter's visit had emailed Michael to ask about a possible class visit. As Michael points out in his blog, it was a bit of a stretch, since the email indicated that they were looking for a class in American Literature through 1940, and his course concerns American fiction since 1945. I, however, was teaching a course in American fiction before 1940, and didn't hear from anybody about any possible class visit. I was, to be specific, teaching the first half of the African American novel course. Now, I suppose it's possible that someone thought my course wasn't the best place for a man to visit who had just published a book titled THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY, but, as it happens, the subject of our class discussion that very morning was Nella Larsen's novel QUICKSAND, of which, to judge from Walter's book OUR AMERICA, he has read every second sentence.

In OUR AMERICA, a book in which Walter expresses certain misgivings about race, multiculturalism, diversity and any number of other scholars, there are several passages in which Walter worries the way that the protagonist of Larsen's first novel exhibits, in his view, an attachment to "the fact of race itself." This is especially evident, he holds, in the sections of the novel that narrate Helga Crane's time in Denmark. (As Penn State's only Danish-American literary critic, I feel compelled to teach the work of America's foremost Afro-Danish-American novelist as often as possible, for reasons that Benn Michaels would reject.) Walter says that in Denmark, "Helga herself becomes the enforcer of racial identity on the American plan." Of course, that phrase "on the American plan" is sufficiently elastic as to form a space-time warp and avenue of escape itself for Walter's argument, but what's striking in this formulation is the way in which Walter elides nearly all the passages in which Larsen's text shows that the Danes are themselves able purveyors of race. It is, for instance, in Copenhagen that Helga sees the Minstrel performance that grips her so. Everywhere Helga goes, she hears the Danish word for "black" being whispered around her. It is Fru Dahl who, contradicting the Dean of Women at Naxos earlier in the novel, insists that Helga should wear bright things, "striking things, exotic things." And even when Walter quotes from the text, he only reads a part of the relevant passage. Hoping to demonstrate that it is Helga who is the enforcer of race, Walter says that she disdains her Danish aunt's "arguments that such prohibitions [as interracial marriage] are not to be taken seriously 'in connection with individuals.'" A close reader might already feel a certain dissonance between Walter's argument and that orphan phrase he quotes. But what the aunt actually says to Helga is: "We don't think of those things here. Not in connection with individuals, at least." You can practically hear some southerner protesting, "but some of my best friends are colored." How Walter manages to elide the ironies Larsen gives us with that "at least" is beyond comprehension.

But it's a trick with a quote that he performs often. Elsewhere in OUR AMERICA he discusses Stephen Vincent Benét's JOHN BROWN'S BODY, a staged version of which I once attended at Ford's Theater on a night when nobody got shot. Walter writes that "Benét's essentially pluralistic nationalism commits him more truly to denying that he can represent the Negro at all than to representing him well." There is a footnote attached at this point, and, since I work in a university that requires me to find citations to myself, I note that this footnote leads to my own first book. Walter's note, having identified READING RACE (thanks, Walter -- my university only counts citations -- it doesn't seem to matter whether they are positive or negative), Walter goes on to comment: "Aldon Lynn Nielsen praises Benét for precisely this refusal, saying that 'he saw more plainly than many the dangers attendant upon attempting to appropriate the voice of the other.' The sanctity of otherness is, of course, fundamental to racial pluralism."

Goodness gracious, as our recently departed Secretary of Defense often said. Those few who have actually read my book know that it contains not one word proposing the sanctity of otherness, and I am a life-long opponent of the essentialist essence of cultural pluralism. What Walter is doing, not at all slyly, is conflating two senses of the word "representation." Benét never forgoes an opportunity to represent black subjects in the sense of speaking ABOUT them. There are many of them in JOHN BROWN'S BODY -- Their appearance, of course, is exactly what I talk about in READING RACE. What Benét refuses is representation in the sense of speaking FOR, as opposed to speaking about. Walter accuses his "chuckle-headed multi-culturalists," to borrow a coinage from Eric Lott, of regarding black Americans as the unrepresentable, irreducible racial other. Not even Benét finds African Americans unrepresentable, though it might be better, given the stereotypes found in his work, if he had. What he refused to do, and I still believe this represents some modicum of progress, was to wholly supplant the self-representations of black Americans. He writes that he cannot write the black-skinned epic -- that such a project awaits a black poet -- It may well be that Benét had never heard of poets such as Alberry Whitman, who had undertaken just such projects. It is certainly the case, though, that one Melvin B. Tolson read Benét, and was determined to supply the epic.

Michael Eric Dyson once came up to me after a talk and enthusiastically congratulated me on the way that I had been "representing." See there, Walter -- I have no fear of representing -- I have no problem, am doing it right now, talking ABOUT Michael Eric Dyson. I have no problem explaining what I take Michael Eric Dyson to be saying. I do draw the line at speaking in his place, at ventriloquising him. That does not make me a worshiper in the sanctum of racial otherness.

On the other hand, I have a big problem with scholars representing the works of others in so loose and careless a fashion as typified by Benn Michaels.

Now, what do you suppose would happen to the space-time continuum if Michael Bérubé, Walter Benn Michaels and Michael Eric Dyson appeared in the same room?

Monday, December 04, 2006

4' 33" for Cecil Giscombe

[what follows is the introduction I provided for a reading by poet C.S. Giscombe on Nov. 30.]

“Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds” is, of course, the title of John Cage’s most notorious composition, one which calls upon a concert pianist to sit at the instrument and do nothing for the period of time specified by the title. When I spoke with Cecil Giscombe earlier this year about tonight’s event, he instructed me that in his view a good introduction is one that lasts about one minute. It took John Cage nearly forty times that time, in one of his most highly structured texts, simply to announce, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” For that matter, it took Giscombe nearly seven minutes to deliver himself of a quite good introduction to Erica Hunt on this very campus. Poets of Cecil’s generation, which is to say people my age, got a good lesson in our youth from James Brown, who sang to us about people who were talking loud and saying nothing.

This may, just may have something to do with the evident proclivity among the more interesting poets of that generation for the compressions of what was once termed analytic lyric, an approach to language that can make even the extended works of Giscombe’s Giscome Road or Into & Out of Dislocation striking for their local intensities and steadily concreting musical structures. I have been speaking for one minute and fifteen seconds, and this concludes the first section of my now overlong introduction to a reading by the poet who signs himself C.S. Giscombe.

“But how long ago was it in television years?” That question forms the opening of one segment of Giscombe’s “Look Ahead-Look South,” a poem I hadn’t looked at in dog’s ages till I found myself reviewing all of Cecil’s writing for an anthology project. I was still looking at a black and white television when I first read Giscombe’s poetry, and I read those poems as a hungry graduate student who had entrusted a friend with some barely spareable cash, not nearly enough to upgrade to a color television in those days, asking that friend who was heading off to Cornell to bring back a selection of recent poetry volumes. There was much to forget in the handful of publications my friend turned over to me upon his return, even much to regret, but there was also Postcards, Giscombe’s first volume, published that same year, 1977. I was not to meet Cecil for nearly two decades, was not to hear him read his poetry for nearly a quarter of a century, but I found in those early poems, “The music I heard / in that Northern house” as Giscombe writes in “Where I Lost It,” exactly the sort of post-projective new American poetry I had instinctively been looking for as I cast about among the cast of contemporary poets for something less marked by pretense and presupposition than the reflexive confessional, something deeper than deep image, something that could stand up in the aesthetic maelstrom of post-punk and speak with a clarity absent even from the world of the Spoken Word stage. “What news for the natcheral man” was what I looked for, Taj Mahal accompanying me on thumb piano and conch as I searched and aged. Like Giscombe, I am “old enough to recall Jim Crow,” and like Amiri Baraka and Bob Dylan, I had dallied with Crow Jane. This all constituted, in an age that came to identify the problematics of identity, “the shapelessness of relation” that is so often Giscombe’s subject. At the pinnacle of the color line there is no rest, no campground – but there is that great getting up morning. There is always something to get up to. There is always the music of relation, and that other economy is the space of poetics, the lyric space that is marked by Giscombe’s passage. I have now been speaking for three minutes and twenty-eight seconds, and I have yet to mention here, as I now mention here , Giscombe’s other works, including Here and Two Sections from Practical Geography and Inland.

In traversing the terrain of Giscombe’s road, his collected texts, one inevitably notes landmarks, familiar features, characteristic ways of getting a thing said, conceptual obsessions. What is clearest is the constant objective, Giscombe’s continual exploration of, as he puts it in “Blue Hole,” “the remotest edge / of description.” We are here well beyond Sauer’s renewed geographies, Olson’s continental drift, even Ashbery’s highly textured wanderings; we are here at exactly the place where the lyric rupture leaves its traces on what “Blue Hole” describes as “soul’s / opaque surface.”

We read often now that we inhabit a post-soul aesthetic, but we have not in fact left behind the questions that haunted us in that age, the questions that still propel Giscombe on his journeys. Many of us have wondered at his recent decision to move into and out of dislocation in Berkeley. The simple observation that in Berkeley you can take your bicycle on the BART train is perhaps too easy.

I’d prefer to think that Cecil is still following those questions as they draw him from his familiar inlands and prairies to that outermost edge of the land, the fault-lines of the San Andreas and the seismic testing ground of our relations. Cecil will ride that train as far as he can, stepping through those questions again and again onto the articulated edge of our possibilities. And one question, fielded in Giscombe’s “Afro-Prairie,” remains, to use the term of those earlier decades, relevant. “Do you like good music?”

The question reanimates a song by Arthur Conley, who I saw a hundred years ago just the other day in a black and white film of the Sam & Dave review performing in Germany. It may be another two decades before some Norton anthology yet to come appends its inevitable footnote to this passage, explaining helplessly to generations of students that Conley, discovered by Otis Redding, was what was then known as a “soul singer.” Students, though, will linger with the operative question itself. “Do you like good music?” If you do, you’ll catch my reference, as well as my drift, as I close in on four minutes and the thirty-third second, as I invite you to welcome a long-haul soul singer: spotlight on Cecil Giscombe.

[left, GISCOME ROAD, by C. S. Giscombe -- Right, Giscome Portage Wagon Road under construction]