Monday, 3 June 2019

The Rest is History - Umberto Tosi

I hate when daily events confirm my worst predictions. It happens all the time while I track the news, which I can't help doing as a former journalist - and just someone, like most of us who can't look away from a train wreck. I keep trying to distract myself by watching ball games and old movies, and browsing the Internet for factoids.

Neither does my being a history addict help. It's deja vu, over and over again, like knowing you've seen a movie before, or the original of a remake, with a few differences but much the same outcomes.

Donald Trump's moves, of course, have become easy to predict by now. He telegraphs his nefarious actions by projecting them on his political enemies. Whatever Trump accuses them of doing, you can be sure he's doing himself. The exasperating surprise is that he - and his kind - keep getting away with more and more blatant violations of conscience, decency and law.

Two years ago, for example, I predicted in this space that Trump's race baiting immigration demagoguery would lead America down a genocidal path - against wider and wider circles of immigrant people of color - from which it would be more and more difficult to return. This was well before the Trump border machine began to snatch and cage refugee children from their parents and build bigger and bigger privately contracted child and adult ICE detention centers that can only be honestly described as concentration camps where thousands currently languish in overcrowded conditions.

Reading history fills in details of this big ugly picture and brings recurring patterns into sharper focus. Take this passage from Otto Friedrich's Before the Deluge, a kaleidoscopic tapestry of Berlin in the 1920s filled with vivid portraits of the doomed Wiemar Republic's brilliant artists, innovators, writers, scientists, politicians and scoundrels - from Bertolt Brecht, to Marlene Dietrich, to Hindenberg. Midway through his book, Friedrich describes a German news baron named Alfred Hugenberg. "At sixty-three, Hugenberg was a glum-looking man with a [handlebar] moustache, but despite his appearance he intimidated people by his blustering manner. Once a director of the Krupp armaments empire, he had ...invested much of his new wealth in publishing and propaganda."

Alfred Hugenberg
Hugenberg acquired most of the nation's major newspapers, radio stations and its largest film studio and ad agency to make himself the undisputed king of Weimar's media industry - with additional ties to German steel companies and banks. Not surprisingly, Hugenberg had major economic and ideological ambitions - including nullification of the Versailles Treaty, a cause for which he promoted a national referrendum. "For this, he [Hugenberg] had money, and power, and a propaganda machine, but he needed an orator who could go out onto the streets and cry for votes. At the Deutsche Orden club in Berlin an intermediary finally brought Hugenberg together with a magnetic young (now forty) orator from Bavaria..."

This was 1928 when Adolf Hitler had fallen far down on his luck. His public support and political power had ebbed following the failed Nazi, Munich beer-hall putsch for which he had served time in prison. Hugenberg, by twist of fate - and not unlike media barons who support demagogues for their own ends today - gave an otherwise washed-up Hitler a national platform and put him back on the map - creating a Frankenstein Monster. Sound familiar? The dots are easy to connect.

My historical knowledge has more holes than an old screen door, but reading history deepens my perception of human behaviour in ways I could not gain any other way. I'm not the first writer to love history, nor to say that the knowledge of what has gone before helps make me a better writer. It reminds me not to pull my punches as a writer - not to let my normally good-natured optimism obscure my vision of the human - and therefore, character - possibilities for evil as well as good.

Out of habit and curiosity, I read scores of historical books and other source material in researching Ophelia Rising, which I set in Shakespeare's early modern, era. I discovered my view of the Elizabethan - and his plays - had been too narrowly confined to England, whereas the Bard himself had been influenced by a much wider world view that included the religious wars on the continent, the New World, then newly rediscovered stories of antiquity and the dramatic literature of his time tracking back to the world of commedia dell'arte and the theater of ancient Greece.

I consumed far more than I could use - and got lost in forests of materials more than once. But the process framed my narratives and anchored me into the inner lives of my characters beyond the common wisdom about how people lived at that time.

My readings included not only histories of the period in England and continental, counter-reformation Europe, but lively studies and commentaries on life and customs in the theatrical world at the time. What I learned about the roles of women on and off the stage proved essential to reimagining the character of Ophelia herself -- including, for example, Lelia's Kiss: Imagining Gender, Sex and Marriage in Italian Reinaissance Comedy, 2009, a fascinating history by Italian American scholar Laura Gianetti.

Otto Friedrich
Otto Friedrich (1929-1995), born in Boston, Massachusetts like myself, was a long-time, literary nonfiction writer for the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. He remains one of my favorite history writers although with a wider range of works, including children's books he wrote with his wife, Priscilla Friedrich. His other books include "Clover: A Love Story," a 1979 biography of Mrs. Henry Adams; "City of Nets: Hollywood in the 1940's" (1986); "Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet," (1992). His histories are filled with vivid details, irony, piquant characterizations and perceptive anecdotes.

In an affectionate, though steely eyed video memoir ("Remembering Otto Friedrich")  his eldest granddaughter, Julia Carson remembers him in the Oyster Bay house he shared with his wife, Priscilla Friedrich. They never watched television, she said, "and not only did they never watch television, they would be unable to work with any technology like television." At the elder Friedrich's home, says Ms. Carson, reading or writing were the prime activities, "day after day."

As a child, Ms. Carson says she browsed through his enormous collection of books. The  way to engage his attention would be to come up with a complex question "like: What was the cause of World War I?" She explains: "To my grandfather, the moment you became a person in his eyes, was not when you were born, but when you were able to read and write and hold up your end of a sustained conversation."

Friedrich played piano well and practised often. He had aspired to be a concert pianist. One of his major works was a biography of Glenn Gould (Glenn Gould, A Life and Variations). "He not only wrote a book about Glenn Gould, he wanted to BE Glenn Gould," said Ms. Carson .

"My grandfather was a really stubborn man, who was stubborn in his work habits and his drinking habits - even when when he was clearly and dangerously diabetic," says Ms. Carson, without a trace of bitterness.

"You could never work hard enough. The job was never over," she says. "If you open any of his books on any page, his voice is in every line."

That's the utmost compliment one could pay any writer - one to which I could only aspire, although I do watch television and don't grill my grandchildren about World War 1.

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Umberto Tosi's books include Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, and Milagro on 34th Street. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be reached at Umberto3000@gmail.com)


8 comments:

Jan Needle said...

Thanks for that, Umberto. Fascinating, informative, and important. Herr Trump arrives in England this morning to kick the propaganda machine into ever greater activity. Gawd help us...

Cecilia Peartree said...

This is all horribly relevant, what with Trump, and Farage and the other forces at work to try and break up the EU and with it potentially the long spell of peace in Europe. I think what I really hate about all of it is people's ignorance about history and refusal to learn lessons from it.

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating but, in the present climate, also chilling, Umberto. If only more of our compatriots could see these people for what they really are. As for today's visiting horror show...

Umberto Tosi said...

Amen, and thank you all!

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Trump in the US...all playing by the same book. NZ seems to be the only voice of reason, and so astonishing. Thank you for this post, for silence should not ever be an option, and especially not in these times.

misha said...

The role played by the media in the rise of Trump, Boris Johnson etc all is something we should all be wary off. Thank you Umberto for this timely, if disturbing post.

Marsha Coupé said...

Timely essay, Umberto.

Watching Buckingham Palace host the tRump family holiday, costing British tax payers at least £10-million a day, while our children and elders eat at food banks, is an abomination. How anybody could think this was a good idea, shows how far removed our elected representatives are from reality.

Forget God Save The Queen. Elizabeth will be fine. It’s the rest of us I’m worried about.

Sandra Horn said...

Great post, Umberto. I'm pinning my hopes on the dogs having their day and disappearing into the maw of history - but SOON, I hope, before too much more damage is done. There were wonderful posters when Trump was here - one of my favourites read: Dear USA, we'll keep him occupied while you change the locks and cancel his passport. Oh, and Farage's latest mob didn't win the Peterborough by-election. Or am I being a cock-eyed optimist, I wonder?