Friday, June 15, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Necessary Book

As a literary author and national journalist for many decades,
I have come to know many writers. Many of the books I read
and enjoy most are by these acquaintances and friends, and
this presents me with an obvious dilemma in writing about or
reviewing their books.

Book reviews are an art form in their own right, especially
those about works of fiction and poetry. Reviews of non-fiction
books can serve as a starting point or foundation for the
reviewer’s own views on a subject. And then there are those
books which are so necessary they merit a straightforward
alert to readers.

Newt Gingrich’s newest book Trump’s America is just such a
work.

In full disclosure, Newt Gingrich has been a friend and. on
occasion, a collaborator, for more than three decades. I will
let my readers decide if what I now say about his new book
is fair and useful.

The former speaker of the U.S. house, himself a serious
presidential candidate in 2012, was among the earliest figures
to see the eventual 2016 electoral success of candidate Donald
Trump. I know that is so because of conversations with him
long before I realized it.

He unambiguously predicted Trump’s nomination and
subsequently his victory over Hillary Clinton in the November
election. Since President Trump took office, he has consistently
explained his actions and views in articles, TV appearances,
and books. Although clearly and constantly favorable to Mr.
Trump, he has always exercised his right to be critical of the
president when he disagreed with him.

Some might characterize Gingrich as a cheerleader or advocate
for Donald Trump, and I think it would be fair to do so. But that
does not diminish the value of Gingrich’s writing on the subject
because the whole phenomenon of Donald Trump’s candidacy
and subsequent presidency is so unprecedented and so often
misunderstood that lucid analysis and explanation is vitally
important for both his partisans and his opponents.

As in his previous book Understanding Trump, Newt Gingrich
continues to be the most incisive diagnostician of the Trump
phenomenon and the political environment which surrounds it.
Yes, his new Trump's America is a partisan account, but that
does not lessen its value, especially to the many Democrats,
and not a few Republicans, who dislike and/or disagree with
the president’s views and style.

For much of the Trump candidacy, and during all of his
presidency, I have been urging my readers, whether they are for
or against Mr. Trump, to put aside their stereotypes of him as
well as the biased media conventional wisdom about him, and
try to understand the underlying reality of his appeal to voters,
and what the president is saying or doing. His Democratic Party
opponents especially need to do this if they are to successfully
provide n credible alternative to him.

So Trump’s America is not only a must-read for the president’s
supporters, but also for his opponents. Mr. Gingrich has become
the most articulate diagnostician of contemporary American
politics. Unlike many of his colleagues on the right and the left,
he is open to new political and technological developments, and
bold enough to try to explain them.

You need not agree with Newt Gingrich, or with Donald Trump,
to gain much from reading Trump’s America. It is a necessary
and timely book.

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Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Old Order Is History

Global civilization goes from one order to another. The transitions
in times we now call “ancient” went slowly and violently. As times
went on, the transitions went more quickly, but alas, no less
violently. The peoples of the world used to be  compartmentalized
geographically.  There were unconnected. Some civilizations
considered themselves “advanced” --- those in north Africa, the
Middle East, Asia and Europe. In addition, there were aboriginal
civilizations in the rest of Africa, North and South America and
Australia and the Pacific Island. As the "advanced" peoples
discovered the lands of the aboriginal peoples, they occupied and
conquered them. After about 5000 years, the dappled settlements
of various peoples became a truly global civilization.

The first true world war was the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and
it involved all of the European great powers as well as their
empires and local allies on all the world’s major continents. In one
of history’s great ironies, it was set off one afternoon when a very
young British officer mistakenly ambushed a French parol near
Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. The name of that young
British major?

George Washington.

The Napoleonic wars in Europe followed. The 19th century order
after that was a European construction called the “chandelier
balance of power’ which lasted almost a century until a single
anarchist shot the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary. Of course,
before this act in Sarajevo, events and politicians had put the
conflict on the calendar, and when this World War I was finally
suspended (but not really terminated), a Second World War
followed.

By 1945, the globe and its peoples were connected as never before,
and the appearance that year of a nuclear weapon, made the
prospects of worldwide violence much diminished. What followed
was a so-called Cold War which was primarily ideological, and
concluded with the survival of democratic capitalism and the
failure of totalitarian communism. Thereafter, a series of
regional and violent wars took place in Korea, Viet Nam, the
Balkans and the Middle East involving the remaining
superpower, the United States of America and its various
challengers and allies.

What was an incipient new order in 1914, and was transformed
first after 1945, and then after 1990, into an aging world order,
soon found the implacable forces of history creating a new world
order --- one now in its gestation.

This new world order involves peoples from the old order, and,
no surprise, peoples and cultures which are newly arriving to
positions of power in the world.

Interestingly, the new players are not entirely new, but come from
prominent civilizations of the past when the world was not so
interconnected. These include China, India and the Islamic
worlds which owe their re-emergence now to their sheer
population size --- each with more than a billion persons.

The old players include the United States and Europe although
these entities are clearly now on defense as the new players
emerge and grow in economic power.

I have set down this super-condensed and simplified survey of
global history with a specific purpose in mind. It is to try to
make more understandable events and personalities now
disrupting and occupying the global stage.

It will be difficult and unsettling to those immersed in the
catechisms of the old order to recognize and understand the
new order.

The central international political figure today, like him or not,
is U.S. President Donald Trump. He does not occupy that
position by some kind of default. His predecessor, Barack
Obama, could have been the central figure, but for reasons of
his own temperament and ideology, he chose to create a
vacuum of global power. No vacuum of diplomatic, military
and economic power lasts more than a nanosecond of political
time, and various figures, major and minor, from all over the
world quickly moved to take full advantage of the new global
circumstances.

It is not necessarily true that only Donald Trump inevitably
would become president, but I think it was inevitable that, if
he did not, someone like Mr. Trump would have emerged.

My European and American readers who are immersed in the
old order will disagree with this hypothesis because they
either consciously or unconsciously resist the coming of a
new global order.

Donald Trump’s strategies of adaption to the new global order
are not necessarily the only potentially successful ways for the
United States to make a transition between the old and the new,
but he is the only elected American politician who currently
has a strategy.

The recent G7 meeting in Canada is a case in point. Most of the
leaders present at that meeting subscribe to the tenets, issues
and circumstances of the old order. Even as they do so, the
leaders of Europe are witnessing the foundations of their own
nations, and the European Union (EU) specifically, crumbling
under their feet. They put on faces of outrage at President
Trump for not going along with their assumptions mired in the
past, but Mr. Trump’s popular support with voters is growing,
not declining.

Mr. Trump has been telling the world, to the contrary, that it’s
time for political and economic reality. The imbalances between
the U.S. and its allies, in military and economic terms, are no
longer viable. The Western establishments have been burying
their collective heads in some desert sand.

No one knows what forms the new world order will take. No one
knows what events, human-made or natural, lie ahead. How the
current negotiations on the Korean peninsula will turn out are
unknown. How the global economic structures, always in
transition themselves, will behave is unpredictable. Is the role
of the U,S, to preserve and grow democratic capitalism in the
new order?

But it won’t be mere words or pieces of paper that will determine
the new global order.

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Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Party Eliminations

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Although the smoke has not yet lifted from the two major party
conventions in Minnesota, one matter is clear: the traditional
parties are closer to irrelevance in 2018.

Each party endorsed a candidate for governor, but endorsement
is only a recommendation to primary voters  in August when the
formal nomination is decided. In the past, endorsements usually
led to nomination, but this has, in some recent cycles, often not
been the case.

Republicans endorsed their previous (2014) nominee, Jeff Johnson,
who lost the general election. It took him three ballots this time to
defeat little-known opponents, and now he must face a much-better
known opponent, former two-term Governor Tim Pawlenty, in the
primary. Pawlenty not only has raised much more money, he is one
of the best communicators in recent state politics.

Democrats (DFL) endorsed a St. Paul legislator, Erin Murphy, in
an upset over retiring 1st district Congressman Tim Walz, a rural
candidate DFL insiders felt would have broad appeal in November.
Walz will now oppose Murphy in the August primary. But he won’t
be Murphy’s only major DFL opponent. DFL Attorney General
Lori Swanson failed to be endorsed on her first ballot at the
DFL convention, and abruptly withdrew from the race. Three
days later, after teaming up with retiring DFL 8th district
Congressman Rick Nolan as her running mate, she filed for
governor. Having run successfully three times statewide,
Swanson could win the primary. In any event, all three major DFL
gubernatorial campaigns will now have to raise and spend a lot
of money in the primary --- a contest that will inevitably be bitter
between the candidates. The general election is only two months
later.

Pre-convention, most observers thought that Walz, as the likely
strongest DFL nominee, would be endorsed and then coast to
the November election with no intraparty problems and a big
campaign fund balance. This has evaporated.

To make matters even more complicated for the DFL, 5th district
DFL Congressman Keith Ellison announced his retirement from
Congress and filed to run for state attorney general against the
DFL endorsee, a little-known attorney who had defeated Swanson
at the state convention. Former Attorney General Mike Hatch, a
close advisor to Lori Swanson, also filed for attorney general, as
did several other DFLers. Hatch lost a 2006 race for governor
against Pawlenty. Ellison has won re-election easily in his
ultraliberal district (Minneapolis), and is the controversial vice
chair of the national Democratic Party. He is well-known for his
radical, and often unpopular, views throughout the state, but he
could win the multi-candidate primary. The likely GOP attorney
general nominee, Doug Wardlow, could now win this race.
Republicans have not held this office since 1971.

Many Republicans are eager for Ellison to win the DFL primary,
and to make his radical left views a major issue in November,
not only in his race, but all the statewide races as they ask all
DFL candidates if they agree with the 5th district congressman’s
controversial views.

The DFL will keep Ellison’s 5th district seat, but now much
money and distraction will be spent by DFLers seeking to be
his successor.  A large number of candidates have filed to run
for this seat. The most well-known is former DFL Speaker of
the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, but Minneapolis voters
have, as their 2017 municipal elections indicated, moved sharply
to the left, and the primary result in this race is yet unknown.

Republicans were poised to possibly pick up two U.S. house
seats elsewhere in the state, and DFLers felt they could pick up
one or two from the GOP, but the chaos in the DFL now would
seem to help Republican candidates outside the Twin Cities.
DFL Senator Amy Klobuchar re-election is safe in any event, but
a second U.S. senate race with appointed DFL Senator Tina
Smith (she replaced Al Frnnken who resigned) now becomes
even more competitive as the cancelled August recess in
Washington, DC makes it difficult for her to campaign back
home in Minnesota where she is not well-known.

To be fair, both parties have divisions and factions, and both
party organizations are big losers as a result of the convention
endorsements. Only a tiny number of activists (less than 1% of
eligible party voters) participate in the endorsement process.
The ability of the DFL and GOP to raise money for the rest of the
2018 campaign is severely diminished, as most donors, large and
small, will give their money now to the individual campaigns
they support. Furthermore, since the two party organizations
(especially the DFL) will now campaign for their endorsed
candidates who might well lose in the primary election, their
political credibility is likely to be severely reduced in November.

Others have observed the general decline of the political  parties
across the nation. But perhaps nowhere has this decline
happened so dramatically as it just has in Minnesota. The DFL
particularly has been the solid backbone of liberal voters in this
state for decades. With their factions, liberal and radical, now at
each other’s political throats in 2018, however, all bets are off.

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Copyrght (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Shocker In Minnesota?

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The two major political parties are in decline across the
nation, and nowhere is this more evident than in Minnesota
where the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have
each just endorsed candidates for governor who are likely
to lose to more popular challengers in an August primary.

Minnesota employs a precinct caucus system in which a tiny
percentage of party activists control the parties, including the
endorsement of candidates for all offices.

That system enables small groups of activists on the left and
the right to dominate the parties with only a tiny number of
activists who are elected delegate every two years in February.
Only about 1% (sometimes even less) of eligible party voters
takes part in this very undemocratic process which culminates
in a biennial state convention.

In recent years, this inefficient, elitist system has produced
weak nominees and intraparty conflicts --- and it is a curious
mystery to many observers why the precinct caucus system
has not been abandoned.

This year, the Republican convention endorsed as expected,
including for the top of its ticket, 2014 GOP gubernatorial
candidate Jeff Johnson (who lost) again. He was endorsed
after the third ballot against two little-known opponents.
Former two-term governor and 2012 presidential candidate
Tim Pawlenty entered the race late and decided not to seek
endorsement. He will run against Johnson in the mid-August
primary. In spite of running in 2014, Johnson is not that
well-known statewide, Pawlenty, on the other hand, has very
high name recognition. In only a month, Pawlenty raised more
than million dollars. Johnson has raised only about $200,000
in almost a year Both support President Trump who remains
very popular with the GOP base--- although Pawlenty was
critical of candidate Trump immediately after the release of the
controversial LA videotape, Pawlenty says he voted for Trump
in 2016 and now supports most of his policies and actions.

Retiring Congressman Tim Walz has been the favorite in the
Democratic (DFL) race for governor. Although he had two
serious opponents (both women), he was expected to win
party endorsement at the DFL convention. He led slightly on
the first ballot, but State Representative Erin Murphy of St. Paul,
running to the left of Walz, took the lead, and won an upset
endorsement on the 8th ballot. Walz then announced he would
run against Murphy in the August DFL primary.

Many observers think that Tim Pawlenty is the much stronger
GOP candidate in 2018, and that the Republicans, with him at
top of the ticket, have a good chance to pick up two Democratic
congressional seats (districts 1 and 8), be competitive in one U.S.
senate race  (against appointed DFL Senator Tina Smith who
replaced Al Franken), keep control of both houses of the state
legislature, and win the governorship.

The results at the DFL state convention will likely enhance
the latter. An endorsed Walz was expected to have little or no
primary opposition, and run as a rural moderate. Now he must
run to the left, and it isn't a certainty he will be the nominee. If
Erin Murphy is, she will have the disadvantage of being to the
left of most state voters. Urban candidates from Minneapolis and
St. Paul traditionally also do not do well with outstate voters.
Normally, her gender would be an advantage, but both DFL U.S.
senate candidates this cycle area also women --- so the advantage
might be limited. Minnesota voters are often ticketsplitters.

The DFL has been, since 2016, moving sharply to the left in
urban centers. This was very evident in both the Twin Cities
2017 municipal elections, and again this year when long-term
iconic DFL elected officials failed to be endorsed. Most notable
of these took place when long-time former legislator, DFL
gubernatorial candidate, and current Hennepin County Attorney
Mike Freeman, son of legendary Minnesota Governor Orville
Freeman (who put JFK name in nomination for president in
1960) was denied endorsement at his own convention.

Both major Minnesota parties have their internal differences and
conflicts, but the DFL also has the extra complication of its
Wellstone Alliance (named after the late senator, and which is its
main voter ID and GOTV vehicle)  being in disarray following
the ouster of the two Wellstone sons from its board with reported
recriminations --- all of this at a critical moment in the election
cycle..

Final filing date for all state offices is Tuesday, June 5. In light
of what happened at the state conventions, more candidates
could file for office. Presumably, the two parties will try to
raise money to promote their endorsed candidates. In reality,
however, major donors are bypassing the party organizations,
and giving directly to each candidate they support.

By continuing to support the precinct caucus system, the two
Minnesota major parties are making themselves more and
more irrelevant,

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Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Political News Catch-Up

MISSOURI GOVERNOR RESIGNS
After months of controversy, sensational headlines and a
criminal investigation, Missouri Republican Governor Eric
Greitens has announced his resignation. Although a court
case was dismissed by the trial judge, and the governor
claimed vindication, he still faced possible impeachment in
the state legislature. Major GOP leaders had called for him
to resign. His political problems were considered a serious
handicap to Republican chances to unseat a vulnerable
incumbent Democratic senator in 2018.

ITALIAN AND SPANISH CRISES
The victory of anti-establishment and anti-European Union
(EU) parties in Italy has created a major crisis in this major
EU partner nation. The Italian president, a member of his
country’s political establishment, is refusing to name
someone from one of the winning parties as the new
prime minster in spite of the fact that they now control
a majority of seats in the new Italian parliament. This has
set off a new crisis in the EU currency, the euro, as well as an
obvious constitutional crisis in a country already beset with
economic and banking woes. A coalition between the two
largest parties has been suspended, but new efforts to
revive it are underway.
[UPDATE: The Italian president has invited  a university
professor, Giuseppe Conte, the choice of the coalition parties, 
to be the new prime minister. He was sworn in on Friday, but 
faces a confidence vote in the parliament next week.]

Another major EU partner, Spain, is facing a new crisis as a
hardline Catalan separatist has been elected the new
president of the autonomous state in Barcelona while a vote
of confidence has been called for Spanish prime minister
Mariano Rajoy’s center-right government, now under fire in
Madrid. If he loses this vote, socialist leader Pedro Sanchez
would likely replace Rajoy, and call for new elections in
August.
[UPDATE: Mr. Rajoy lost his confidence vote in parliament,
and has been ousted after 7 years in office. Socialist Party
leader Pedro Sanchez automatically became the new prime
minister, but his party holds only about 25% of the seats in 
the Cortes (parliament), and he almost certainly will have t
o call new elections soon.]

BRAZIL AT A STANDSTILL
A nationwide truckers strike has virtually paralyzed Brazil.
President Michel Terner is attempting to halt this threat to
South America’s biggest economy, but so far faces an impasse.
Protesters seek to oust Terner in this latest Brazilian crisis.

THE 2018 POLLING CONTRADICTION
Recently, the number of U.S. house seats considered competitive
in 2018 has been expanded on several political obsrverss by
about 15-20 district races. All of the new vulnerable seats are
now held by Republicans. In previous lists, the overwhelming
majority of incumbent seats considered vulnerable were also
Republican. The Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to regain
control. The reclassification of the additional Republican
incumbents in danger of losing presumably is based on recent
polling.  At the same time, these same observers, and virtually
all others, are reporting that the generic U.S. house poll has
fallen in less than two months from 13 points favoring the
Democrats to 1-4 points. Historically, a party had to have a lead
of 5 points or more to make even significant gains in a mid-term
election. How such a dramatic increase in GOP vulnerabilty can
occur while the generic Democratic advantage has fallen
dramatically at the same time is a curious contradiction in
political analysis.

NEW JERSEY SENATE SEAT 
SUDDENLY IN PLAY
New Jersey is  one of the most Democratic (blue) states in the
country, and normally the re-election of its Democratic incumbent
senator is no contest. Senator Bob Menendez faced a criminal
trial, but when the jury could not make a verdict, prosecutors
decided not to retry the case. His 2018 re-election was initially
considered a safe Democratic seat, but a respected state poll
shows his lead against a mostly unknown GOP opponent has
dropped from double digits to only 4 points. Menendez’s’
favorable numbers are also very low. His Republican
opponent, a former U.S. marine, and currently a CEO of a
major international company, can presumable partly self-fund.
This race now has to be added to 2018 senate seats in play.

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Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 28, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The "Mad" General

One of the key military figures in the American revolution and
later in the struggles in the early years of the constitutional
republic was a dandy, a womanizer, and a bankrupt. He is still
remembered where he lived, places named after him, and
where he died. He once was elected to Congress, but was
turned out of it by a unanimous vote. He was one of George
Washington’s favorite generals, invented U.S. army basic
training, but he was hated and reviled by many of his military
colleagues.

Yet in 1794, he won such an important battle that he probably
saved the young, struggling nation from ruin and destruction.

He is in the history books, but if it weren’t for the colorful epithet
usually attached to his name, he might be almost forgotten.

Let’s start at the end.

A year following his greatest and most important victory, the
Battle of Fallen Timbers in Indiana in 1794, Major General
Anthony Wayne was on his way home to eastern Pennsylvania.
He had just averted a disastrous defeat of the American army by
a combine of the British army (which was illegally keeping forts
on U.S. territory in Ohio and Indiana), and their American Indian
allies fighting to preserve their tribal lands from the
encroachment of frontier settlers.

Sailing along the south shore of Lake Erie, an old war wound (a
bullet lodged in his thigh) became infected, and he suffered a
chronic case of gout. It was December, 1795, so the relatively
young general sailed into a small northwestern Pennsylvania port
(now Erie, PA) guarded by the formerly French Fort Presque Isle
now manned by the U.S Army. The fort’s commandant had served
under General Wayne, and immediately put him to bed in the fort
blockhouse where he seemed at first to improve, but after two
weeks, he died from his illness.

Thus ended the colorful, sometimes glorious, often controversial,
life and military career of one of he nation’s early soldier heroes.

Anthony Wayne grew up in a rural area near Philadelphia. He had
not intended to have a military career, but when the Revolutionary
War broke out in 1776, he organized a local militia. He was soon in
the thick of the action, fighting at Commander-in-Chief George
Washington’s side as one of his most trusted officers.

Along his way in this period, he acquired the nickname “Mad
Anthony” primarily for his often strange behavior and because he
was so fastidious and elaborate in his attire.

(His attire included hats with feathered cockades that were given
to him by admirers, and became his trademark. Growing up in
Erie where he died and was buried, I was familiar with the lore
of the legendary general. After graduate school and before moving
to Minneapolis, I taught high school during the day, and operated
a book store and gallery after school hours and on the weekends,
The name of my bookstore/gallery? Mad Anthony’s Hat!)

He was a figure at many important occasions, including Valley
Forge and Yorktown. He suffered a terrible defeat commanding at
the 1777 Battle of Paoli, but recovered his reputation at the 1779
Battle of Stony Point. Washington often turned to Wayne in
difficult situations, including sending Wayne to Georgia just after
the British surrender  where he distinguished himself in
negotiating with the local India tribes and ending hostilities. The
grateful new state of Georgia awarded him a plantation.

After the war, Wayne had an up-an-down career and family life.
But in 1794, President Washington reactivated Wayne and sent
him to resolve one of two crises that threatened the very
existence of the new constitutional government.

One was an actual insurrection in western Pennsylvania where
farmers, angry at a new tax on whiskey, had begun an armed
Whiskey Rebellion. The tax, conceived by Secretary of the
Treasury Alexander Hamilton, was designed to help pay for the
U.S. revolutionary war debt. But many of the farmers were
veterans of that war --- a war provoked by unpopular British
taxation. Washington’s dilemma was that he had to assert the
power of the new federal government, or it would collapse. He
sent part of his army to suppress the rebellion, finally donning
his old uniform, and leading the army himself (the only example
in U.S history of a sitting president leading his troops into battle).

The second crisis was equally threatening. Although the British
had surrendered at Yorktown, they continued to occupy, in
violation of the subsequent Treaty of Paris, forts on the Ohio 
frontier. They also conspired with their Native American
tribe allies to prevent any settlement of Americans in the
territory that the Treaty had surrendered. Tribal chiefs had
not surrendered at Yorktown and had not signed the peace
treaty at Paris, and were determined to stop encroachment on
their lands.

Washington decided to both send an army to Ohio Territory
to assert U.S. rights, and to negotiate with the Indians. When
those negotiations failed, it was necessary for the new U.S.
army (called then the American Legion), led by Major General
Anthony Wayne to defeat both the British and the tribes in
battle.

The campaign did not at first go well, but in a climactic
confrontation at Fallen Timbers in what is now Indiana,
Wayne’s forces triumphed. The British then withdrew, and the
tribal chiefs negotiated a settlement.

Had Wayne and his troops failed, public support for President
Washington and his government might well have collapsed,
and the British might have reclaimed its lost colony.
Western settlement would have stopped.

Most Americans today believe the surrender at Yorktown in
1781 and the enactment of the U.S. constitution in 1788,
firmly established the new republic. In fact, the security and
strong footing of the new nation was provisional for many
years.

“Mad” Anthony Wayne played a major role, especially at the
end of his military career, in securing the republic. But worn
out from war battles, business mistakes, family problems and
personal attacks by rivals and colleagues, he was denied a
homecoming and an old age of acclaim and honor in that bitter
winter of 1796 at that remote outpost in Erie.. He was only
51 years old.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

[NOTE: Readers wishing to learn more about this extraordinary
figure, might obtain the excellent new book, Unlikely General:
"Mad"Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America by Mary
Stockwell.]

Friday, May 25, 2018

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Philip Roth

The novelist Philip Roth has died at 85.

He was a major figure in his generation of Jewish-American
writers that included Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, J.D.
Salinger, Norman Mailer, Cynthia Ozick, Edward Wallant,
E.L. Doctorow, and many others. Only Bellow (born in
Canada) in this group received the Nobel Prize for literature,
but Roth did win many other prizes and awards.

I first read his short stories in the 1960s when I attended the
University of Pennsylvania. I liked his stories very much, but
I had a hard time with his novels, especially his later ones.
They seemed to me too overladen with a certain prolonged
angst that was not my own.

Midway in my time at Penn, I decided to make creative
writing my major. There were no big-name writers on the
Penn English department faculty in those days, but
better-known authors were brought in as short-term guest
instructors, including Archibald MacLeish, May Sarton and
others, For my final semester at Penn, I learned the guest
instructor would be Philip Roth. (Years later, Roth joined
the regular Penn faculty,)

His appearance in class was not at all the image that came
from his earthy and emotional stories. He was impeccably
dressed, thin, scholarly, reserved and preoccupied. There is
a certain tension that often exists when writers of an older
generation speak to writers of a younger generation. When
Roth gave each of us a mimeographed copy (which I still
have) of his recently published story The Psychoanalytic 
Special to read and discuss at our next class, this tension
erupted. Many of us were critical of the story. I remember
how surprised and defensive he was when the discussion
did take place. Roth was 31 at the time, and was going
through a painful separation from his first wife. None of us,
of course, had been divorced.

At the end of the term, Roth invited each of his students to
meet with him privately to discuss their work and their future
plans. When I came to his office, he was polite and serious. He
made some nice comments about the writing samples of mine
he had read, and then he asked me about my plans after
graduation.

I told him that I had taken the law boards, received a high
score, and planned to go to law school. He responded by
suggesting that I instead attend the University of Iowa’s
Writers Workshop, then, as now, a leading graduate writing
program in the country. He said he would call Paul Engle,
the founder and director of the Workshop, to recommend
me. I was very flattered, thought about it for a few days, and
told him at our next and last class that I would apply. He did
make the call, and soon afterward I was accepted.

At the Writers Workshop there were many well-known
authors on the faculty, In addition, nearly every major
American writer, as well as some from other countries,
made their way to Iowa City in those days (and, I believe,
still do) to give a reading or lecture and spend some informal
time with the students, Roth himself had taught at the
Workshop a few years before.

One teacher at Iowa was the Chilean novelist Jose Donoso
who introduced me and my classmates to the then-newest
generation of European and South American writers. Another
was the American author Kurt Vonnegut who, unlike Roth,
was disarmingly casual and unfocused in the classroom. But
we found his storytelling and informality irresistible when we
went barhopping with him after class. We also were charmed
by the style of his off-the-wall novels. He wasn’t then as
well-known then as he became later, but it wasn’t long before
 his little cult of devotees grew into a national readership.                               

After that last class at Penn I did not see Philip Roth again.
In recent years, I thought I would have some occasion to
see him and thank him for what he did, but it did not happen.

Several books of poetry and fiction --- as well as a few about
history and politics --- later, my work has few if any influences
from Philip Roth. Considering, however, the limits of style
and theme from others on a writer’s work, and the greater
importance of the paths we take in our lives, I think that
Philip Roth gave me the larger gift.

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Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.