Monday, March 21, 2011

Paintbox on the Frontier

As I write, the vernal equinox is mere hours away and a veritable cluster of crocus is abloom in the next block. It's late on the 19th of March, the 151st anniversary of the birth of "the Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan. When he was but 36 years old he electrified a bunch of Democrats when he wound up his speech (on the nation's monetary policy), saying ] "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!" This most gifted gasbag ended up winning his party's nomination three elections in a row, losing every time, but he did become President Wilson's Sec'y of State. He (or rather, a character based upon WJB as he was at the "Monkey Trial" down in Dayton, Tennessee in 1927), was portrayed devastatingly by Fredric March (opposite Spencer Tracy) in Inherit the Wind in 1960.
Early in the morning I'm off to the University of Central Missouri, where I once was an exceedingly impressionable art-dork, back when President Nixon was in office. Tomorrow I'll be expected to talk to teachers attending the school's 43rd annual Children's Literature Festival. What about? History, by golly. I'm to address these questions: How can an awareness of the past improve the present, the future, and very possibly save the world? How can you (and your students) get it? I hope I'll know the answers by tomorrow afternoon!
Then on Monday I'll gas away to several gatherings of some of the 5,500 school children, entertain and educate them to a fare-thee-well as to my books and the good old writing/rewriting process. I'll torment them with my harmonica, too, and draw pictures. It's the least I can do, seeing as they will have gotten up far too early in order to pile onto yellow busses charged with carrying them to the festival, where they'll hear four different authors in the course of their day, buy books, get them signed. Really, a pretty extraordinary deal.
To get there (Warrensburg, MO), I'll go down state highway 13, past land once farmed by my great-great grandfather, Alden Harness, and his sons, in the years before and during the Civil War, when passions ran terribly high hereabouts between largely (but by no means entirely) southern-leaning Missouri and Kansas, a.k.a. the "Free State." Farms, towns, lives - all were well and truly torn up, as shown here in a rightfully famous image entitled Order Number 11. It was created by George Caleb Bingham, another passionate politician, one who happened to be exceedingly handy with a paint brush. Had he not died in 1878, he'd be turning 200 on the 20th of March, as it was on that day that he was born, in Virginia, in 1811, the year of the great earthquake, centered near Missouri's boot heel. So fierce the quake was that the Mississippi flowed backwards, for a little while anyway - what a swell year in which to take a boat rid down the river. So Nicholas Roosevelt (great-grand-uncle of Theodore) did, along with Lydia, his bride, upon the New Orleans, their steamboat, clear down to the city by that name. A first. I learned about this in the course of doing my book, Mark Twain and the Queens of the Mississippi. In any case I'd be willing to bet that there are several fine books to be found about Geo. C. B., but a very fine one indeed is Alberta Wilson Constant's Paintbox on the Frontier: The Life and Times of George Caleb Bingham That's the very best sort of biography, don't you agree? What is a Life minus its Times, its context? Anyway, that's what I'll be telling those teachers tomorrow. That and my reasons why anyone who's anyone ought to know something about what's gone on before she or he made her or his entrance on the world's stage. After all, how can you expect to play your part if you don't know what happened before you walked out into the glare of the footlights. Ah! It's the 20th. I hope Mr. Bingham knows that he's remembered. Now, as for the 21st of March - that of course is the anniversary of the day upon which Johann Sebastian Bach was born. In 1685. In the Spring. WWewingorder.jpg

1 comment:

Gretchen Woelfle said...


Thanks for the meandering road trip through Missouri and the last 200 years. Lucky kids and teachers at that conference - I'd love to hear you "gas away!"