Our Hubris Will Be Our End

Then we’ll adapt and start telling ourselves new stories, just as humans have always done.

By Roy ScrantonRoy

Scranton is the author of “We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland on the Delmarva PeninsulaCredit Lexey Swall for The New York Times

You can walk to the beach from where we are staying. It’s a long peel of dun-colored sand bordered by tidy rainbow summer houses, monotonous black and white condos and monstrous blue McMansions that blister the length of the Delmarva Peninsula. On the other side of the sand lies the heaving, implacable mass of unfathomable gray-green water that covers nearly three-quarters of the globe, once a boundary between the known and unknown, a limit-space of mystery and terror, now tamed, or so we think, to a vacation fun zone. There are lifeguards, though, lean summer kids with lazy tans, and to the north, rising from the low trees, towers built to defend the American coastline from Nazi subs.

Ten minutes away, the highway connects you to an outlet mall, a Walmart and a cinema showing the latest superhero movie. We walk back and forth from the beach to the house, brave the cold Atlantic rush and the biting flies, make dinner, put the baby to bed, play a board game and sink at last into our screens, each of us burrowed into a different dark corner of the living room. Tablet light, phone light, laptop light flicker on our slack, rapt gazes.

Five hundred years ago, the people who lived here did not believe in progress. They did not believe in individual liberty, the autonomous self, the freedom of markets, human rights, the state or the concept of nature as something distinct from culture. They lived for generations without electricity, refrigeration, automobiles, Wi-Fi, on-demand streaming, police, homogenized milk, antibiotics or even The New York Times, and they were almost entirely wiped out in the centuries-long campaign of displacement and genocide that forms the through-line of North American history from 1492 to the end of the Apache Wars in the 1920s.

 

Indeed, some historians and anthropologists — such as James C. Scott, in his book “Against the Grain” — argue that life before modernity was better than our own, with more leisure time, fewer diseases and afflictions, and a more robust phenomenological and spiritual engagement with the world around us. True or not, the argument feels right, especially any time I find myself sitting by a campfire after hiking through the woods all day, or hanging out at the beach watching the waves crash.

Then I go back to my habits: the computer at which I write; the gas range, with its reliable, smokeless flame on which I heat my coffee; the flush toilet — indoors! — that carries away all bodily waste; the electric lamp I turn on to read by; the heating and air-conditioning that regulate our house’s microclimate. And I cannot help but feel an abiding sense of relief. I am adapted, whether I like it or not, to a certain built environment, a certain sense of space, a certain social order.

We humans of the Anthropocene Era, inhabitants of a global capitalist civilization built on fossil fuels, slavery and genocide, are used to living with the fruits of that civilization. We are accustomed to walking on concrete in mass produced shoes. When it rains we go inside or open an umbrella made of nylon, a synthetic polymer first designed in 1930. When we have to travel, we take a train, bus, car or plane, journeying hundreds of miles in a few hours, at speeds that would have been unimaginable 250 years ago. When it gets hot, we turn on the air-conditioning or go to the beach.

The extended coastal urban areas where about 40 percent of all humans now live, so blessedly near the sea, including this very beach town from which I write, would have been incomprehensibly strange, even grotesque, to the people who used to live here. Yet we are no different from them in any essential way, only accustomed to a different way of life, a different built environment, a different set of narratives and concepts that shape our sense of reality.

The thing we humans of the Anthropocene share with the Nanticoke and the Unami-speaking Lenape who used to live on the Delmarva Peninsula, and with the !Kung of the Kalahari, the Yukaghir of Siberia, the medieval Persians, the ancient Mayans, the blue-painted Picts, the Neolithic proto-Chinese Peiligang peoples and the Paleolithic nomads of the Pleistocene Era is precisely our ability to adapt to changing conditions, primarily through the collective use of symbolic reasoning and narrative. Homo sapiens can live almost anywhere on Earth, under almost any conditions; all we need is a story telling us why our lives matter.

In the transition from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic eras, around 65 million years ago, when the North American continent began to take shape, much of what we call the Eastern Seaboard was under water. No human beings existed then; it would be millions of years before any hominids evolved.

Today, Delmarva’s highest point is barely above sea level, a low hill on the peninsula’s west coast where you can sit and watch Chesapeake Bay slowly rise as Antarctica and Greenland melt, as the planet warms one-tenth degree by one-tenth degree, and the world to which we have adapted changes into something else. The beach will disappear, the McMansions will fill with water, the lifeguards will age and die and even the towers built to watch for Nazis will crumble and fall.

In some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us will adapt to a whole new world. You can see them sitting circled around a fire on the beach, the light flickering on their rapt faces, one telling a story about a mighty civilization doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.

The Humanity We Can’t Relinquish

Searching for a shared humanness in North Korea.

By Pico Iyer

Mr. Iyer is the author of many books on the customs, religions and cultures of countries around the world.

Credit Jun Cen

NARA, Japan — We’d just emerged from a long and rather liquid dinner on a barge along the Taedong River, in the heart of North Korea’s showpiece capital of Pyongyang. Two waitresses had finished joining our English tour guide, Nick, in some more than boisterous karaoke numbers. Now, in the bus back to the hotel, one young local guide broke into a heartfelt rendition of “Danny Boy.” His charming and elegant colleague, Miss Peng — North Korea is no neophyte when it comes to trying to impress visitors — was talking about the pressures she faced as an unmarried woman of 26, white Chanel clip glinting in her hair. Another of our minders — there were four or five for the 14 of us, with a camera trained on our every move for what we were assured was a “souvenir video” — kept saying, “You think I’m a government spy. Don’t you?”

But I was back in North Korea because nowhere I’d seen raised such searching questions about what being human truly involves. Nowhere so unsettled my easy assumptions about what “reality” really is. The people around me clearly wept and bled and raged as I did; but what did it do to your human instincts to be told that you could be sentenced, perhaps to death, if you displayed a picture of your mother — or your granddaughter — in your home, instead of a photo of the Father of the Nation? Did being human really include not being permitted to leave your hometown, and not being allowed to say what you think?

I’ve never doubted that humanity is a privilege, even if we, as the animals who think, are also the creatures who agitate, plot and fantasize. Governments try to suppress this at times, and many of us in the freer world now imprison ourselves by choosing to live through screens, or to see through screens, like the Buddhist demagogue Ashin Wirathu who, in defiance of the shared humanness that the Buddha worked so hard to elucidate, compares his Muslim neighbors in Myanmar to wolves and jackals. More and more of us these days seem to be living at post-human speeds determined by machines, to the point where we barely have time for kids or friends. But if we’re feeling less than human — or pretending we can engineer mortality away — for most of us it’s a choice we’re making, and can unmake tomorrow.

In my home of more than 30 years, Japan, nobody thinks twice about being married by a robot or apologizing to a pencil after you throw it across a room. My neighbors rattle on cheerfully about “2.5 dimensional characters” and “demi-humans;” their government has appointed the mouthless cartoon cutie Hello Kitty and a 22nd-century blue robotic cat named Doraemon as cultural ambassadors. Lines between animate and inanimate run differently in an animist Shinto universe where — you see this in the beautiful films of Hayao Miyazaki — every blade of grass or speck of dust is believed to have a spirit.

A robot of Doraemon, one of Japan’s cultural ambassadors, at Taobao City in Hangzhou, China, in 2015.Credit VCG/VCG, via Getty Images

In Japan, as in its neighbor North Korea, a human is often taken to be part of a unit, a voice in a choir; her job may be to be invisible, inaudible and all but indistinguishable from those around her. At the Family Romance company in Tokyo, 1,200 actors stand ready to impersonate, for a price, a child’s absent father, for years on end, or a wife’s adulterous lover. The Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki describes itself as the world’s “first hotel staffed by robots.”

But all this means only that the boundaries of what it is to feel human emotion are stretched, to the point of including motes of pollen or the railway carriages people bring presents for. Even the dead are treated as human in Japan. After my mother-in-law passed away in February, her closest relatives never stopped chattering to her, setting out a glass of her favorite beer next to her coffin, applying blush to her waxen cheeks. My wife still puts food out for her father five years after he was placed into the earth; this month our son will return home because his departed grandfather and grandmother are believed to be visiting for three days then as well.

To me this only confirms the visceral sense many of us have that holiness and humanness may be more closely entwined than we imagine. Speaking to the Dalai Lama for 44 years now, I’m often most touched when he stresses how mortal he is, sometimes impatient, sometimes grieving, just like all the rest of us. I keep returning to the novels of Graham Greene because he reminds us that a “whisky priest” can get drunk, neglect every duty, even father a child, yet still rise to a level of kindness and selflessness that a pious cardinal might envy. It’s in our vulnerability, Greene knew, that our strength truly lies (if only because our capacity to feel for everyone else lies there, too).

For more than 30 years now I’ve been traveling — to Yemen, to Easter Island, to Ethiopia — to see what humanness might be, beneath differences of custom and circumstance and race. I’ve watched young mothers dodging bullets, children living in garbage dumps, those whom disease has left far from most of the capacities and restraints we associate with being human. If circumstances change, however, I never doubt that the humanness of just about every one can be recovered.

The first time I visited North Korea, 24 years before my evening on the barge, my guide led me, during my last afternoon in the city, up a hill. It was just the two of us. Below were the cutting-edge (if often uninhabited) skyscrapers, the amusement parks and spotless, wide boulevards his government had created out of what, only 35 years before, had been rubble, a demolished city in which, North Koreans claim, only two buildings remained upright.

My guide wasn’t unworldly; he’d studied for three years in Pakistan and spoke Urdu and English. He knew that his sense of what it is to lead a human life was very different from mine. But what he said was, “Don’t listen to my propaganda. Just tell your friends back in America what you’ve seen here.”

Was he going off script for a moment — or only offering an even craftier set of lines his directors had given him? I couldn’t tell. But I could feel that he was appealing to something human in me and whatever understanding two humans can share, even if they come from opposite worlds. Official Pyongyang seems the last word in inhumanity to me, but as my guide kept waving and waving goodbye while I passed through immigration, I felt with fresh power how no one can fully deprive us of our humanity but ourselves.

Author Jonathan Thompson at Sherbino Monday, August 13th

Jonathan Thompson
River of Lost Souls

Monday, August 13th – Sherbino Theater, Ridgway
Doors at 7:00 pm, presentation at 7:30pm. $5 entry at door.

Join the Mountain Independent and the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership for an evening with JONATHAN THOMPSON on his Ouray County stop for his book tour to present RIVER OF LOST SOULS.

Part elegy, part ode, part investigative science journalism, RIVER OF LOST SOULS tells the gripping story behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster that turned the Animas River in southwestern Colorado orange with sludge and toxic metals for over 100 miles downstream, wreaking havoc on cities, farms, and the Navajo Nation along the way.

Jonathan P. Thompson is an award-winning freelance author, journalist and editor. He usually writes about the land, culture and communities of the American West, with an emphasis on energy development, pollution, land-use politics and economics. But he’s fascinated by the complexity of the world around him, and is happy to delve into almost any topic. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House Press, February 2018) and is a contributing editor at High Country News.

Learn More

 

 

 

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“Thompson, a southwestern Colorado native, knowledgeably and sensitively addresses ethical questions at the heart of his inquiry, including what it would mean to restore the water system to its precolonial state. He effortlessly explains the technical elements of this story, such as the complex chemistry of the environmental effects of mining. This is a vivid historical account of the Animas region, and Thompson shines in giving a sense of what it means to love a place that’s been designated a ‘sacrifice zone.'” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“An elegy of sorts for a beloved natural area with a long history of human exploitation.” —FOREWORD REVIEWS
“The reader will revel in the beauty of the Colorado landscape while recoiling from descriptions of cruelty towards the Native Americans and the horrors of acid mine drainage.” — BOOKLIST
“Thompson’s writing meanders through Western history, family stories, and pollution–causing activities to create a vivid and, at times, horrifying time line that shows the aftereffects of human exploitation of nature… Aficionados of Western history, environmentalists, and even general readers will enjoy this cautionary tale that takes an intimate look at the side effects of human industry.” — LIBRARY JOURNAL
“Thompson’s investigative chops are impressive. But the book is most evocative when the author negotiates the strange eddies of his personal connections to this landscape.” —SIERRA MAGAZINE
“Thompson’s debut work tells the tale of the Four Corners, its history, its people and their interaction with the land—all from the perspective of a fourth–generation Durango resident.” —THE DURANGO HERALD
“Thompson weaves his skills of investigative journalism and factual verification with the empowering tools and devices of a novelist to bring the reader directly into his new book.” —THE UTAH REVIEW
“An important book of investigative journalism, especially relevant for those living in the Mountain West.” —ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL
“By turns mournful, optimistic, angry and hilarious, Thompson offers fresh takes on everything from a mountain town’s bare knuckle politics to a young man’s loss of innocence to what it truly means to be a Westerner. Deeply researched, thoroughly unsentimental, this is a moving and rip–roaringly told tale.” —STEVE FRIEDMAN, author of Lost on Treasure Island and Driving Lessons
“A rich historical and personal account of the San Juan Basin, a region blessed and cursed by its geology. From the hard rock mining era of the late 1800s to the recent natural gas drilling boom, some things never change: the extractive industries fight common sense rules to their own—and the public’s—detriment. This book is a must read for every person who loves the West and needs to understand how we got to where we are today.” —GWEN LACHELT, La Plata County Commissioner and founder of the Western Leaders Network ​
“Equal parts The Quiet Crisis and Silent Spring, and 100% scary, timely, and so very important. Every citizen in every western mining community MUST read this book, as should every politician at every level of government.” —ANDY NETTELL, Back of Beyond Books ​
” Thompson, a fifth generation Animas Valley local, and a master craftsman of the written word, makes this book a privilege to read.” —PETER SCHERTZ, Maria’s Bookshop ​

Award–winning investigative environmental journalist Jonathan P. Thompson digs into the science, politics, and greed behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster, and unearths a litany of impacts wrought by a century and a half of mining, energy development, and fracking in southwestern Colorado. Amid these harsh realities, Thompson explores how a new generation is setting out to make amends.

As shocking and heartbreaking as the Gold King spill and its aftermath may be, it’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The disaster itself was the climax of the long and troubled story of the Gold King mine, staked by a Swedish immigrant back in 1887. And it was only the most visible manifestation of a slow–moving, multi–faceted environmental catastrophe that had been unfolding here long before the events of August 5, 2015.

Jonathan Thompson is a native Westerner with deep roots in southwestern Colorado. He has been an environmental journalist focusing on the American West since he signed on as reporter and photographer at the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper in 1996. He has worked and written for High Country News for over a decade, serving as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2010. He was a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and in 2016 he was awarded the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market. He currently lives in Bulgaria with his wife Wendy and daughters Lydia and Elena.

“Shout, Sister, Shout!,” a Biography of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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August 3, 2018

When Chuck Berry died, last year, the obituaries were filled with the neon names of sixties rock and roll mourning Berry’s passing and declaring him the father of the form. But history doesn’t work quite that neatly. Everything comes from multiple sources, forms of music not least. In “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” Gayle F. Wald tells the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915–1973), a daughter of the Sanctified Church, a sublime gospel singer, a songwriter, and a hot-guitar player who became known, with good reason, as the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University, published her fine biography in 2007, but it—and, more, Tharpe’s music—never quite got the attention it deserved. Wald will give you the story, from small-town Arkansas to the biggest stages in the country. Spotify, YouTube, and all the other obvious sources will give you the music: “Up Above My Head,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “This Train.”

If Tharpe is old news to you, my apologies, but you’ve got to hear her play and sing. Little Richard called Sister Rosetta his favorite singer as a child. Johnny Cash adored her voice. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes—they all loved listening to Tharpe and claimed her as an influence. Like Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, Tharpe lived in the country between the sacred and the profane, the Word of God and the realm of earthly, and earthy, matters. In the late fifties, the early stars of rock started hearing Tharpe sing “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and it knocked them flat. “Say, man, there’s a woman that can sing some rock and roll. I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she’s singing rock and roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis told Peter Guralnick. “She jumps it . . . I said, ‘Whooo.’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

A Hemingway War Story Sees Print for the First Time ~ NYT

Ernest Hemingway surrounded by American soldiers in France, months before Allied troops liberated Paris from the Nazis. A newly published short story, “A Room on the Garden Side,” takes place in Paris shortly after the liberation. Credit Central Press, via Getty Images

 

By 1956, Ernest Hemingway was in a free fall.

Once transformative and captivating, his short, simple staccato style that remade American writing decades before had gone stale. It was now emulated by numerous authors. Lost in a literary rut, he became a caricature of his super-macho characters. He dodged sniper’s bullets in France, chased wild animals in Africa and tried to outrun fame.

That summer, Hemingway found inspiration for his fiction in his adventures years earlier as a correspondent in World War II. He wrote five short stories about the war, he told his publisher, with a stipulation: “You can always publish them after I’m dead.”

Six decades later and long after his suicide in 1961, only one of those stories had been published — until Thursday. The newly published work, “A Room on the Garden Side,” is a roughly 2,100-word story told in the first person by an American writer named Robert just after Allied soldiers liberated Paris from the Nazis in August 1944.

There is little doubt that Robert is based on the author himself. The scene from the title is a garden-view room at the Ritz, the luxury hotel in Paris on the Place Vendôme that Hemingway adored and claimed to have “liberated” in the war. Soldiers in the story call Robert by the writer’s nickname, “Papa.” There are other signs, too: exclusive magnums of champagne, doting service from the hotelier and discussions about books and writers and the trappings of celebrity.

 

“Hemingway’s deep love for his favorite city as it is just emerging from Nazi occupation is on full display, as are the hallmarks of his prose,” said Andrew F. Gulli, the managing editor of The Strand Magazine, the literary quarterly that published the story.

While the short story had never been released to the reading public, it was not entirely unknown. The manuscript — 15 pages written in pencil — has been stored for decades in the permanent Hemingway collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Hemingway scholars have studied and written about “A Room on the Garden Side” and the four other works in the series, including “Black Ass at the Crossroads,”the only other story that had been published.

About a year ago, Mr. Gulli said, he asked the Hemingway estate for permission to print the story in The Strand Magazine, which mostly publishes new mystery stories but also unpublished pieces by well-known writers. In November, it published an uncovered short story by Raymond Chandler, best known for his gritty detective tales.

“It would be easy to create a small collection of unpublished works and sell a ton of copies, but they’ve been so successful with the Hemingway brand by selectively knowing when and how to publish these little gems,” Mr. Gulli said, referring to the administrators of the estate.

Kirk Curnutt, a board member of the Hemingway Society, wrote an afterword in the magazine noting that the piece “contains all the trademark elements readers love in Hemingway” and captures “the importance of Paris.”

“The war is central, of course, but so are the ethics of writing and the worry that literary fame corrupts an author’s commitment to truth,” Mr. Curnutt wrote.

If you prefer to read the story yourself first, you might want to stop here.

The narrative takes place during an evening in the hotel room near the end of the war. Some French soldiers dismantle and clean their weapons. They talk about leaving Paris the next morning to continue fighting.

Robert sips on 1937 Perrier-Jouët Brut from fine glassware, reads books and watches the sunlight bounce off trees in the garden. Surrounded by war, he enjoys luxury and personal comfort in one of the hotel’s finer rooms. But he yearns to leave the room and walk out of the Ritz.

The autobiographical elements are clear. As the war ended, Hemingway was in the middle of a drought writing new fiction, after the success of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” published in 1940. It had been nearly 20 years since he wrote his early novels, “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms.”

In 1950, he wrote the widely lampooned “Across the River and Into the Trees.” Then, in 1952, he published “The Old Man and the Sea,” a global success that destroyed the last remnants of his privacy. Shortly after he finished “A Room on the Garden Side,” Hemingway told a friend that he hated the disruptive nature of fame.

“Probably I would do better never to publish anything else,” Hemingway wrote to his friend Harvey Breit, the editor of The New York Times Book Review.Simpler to leave stuff for when I am dead.”

 

Inside the Release of a Never-Before-Published Ernest Hemingway Story ~ Vanity Fair

“A Room on the Garden Side,” one of the legendary writer’s final short stories, will be published for the first time Saturday.
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Ernest Hemingway’s last decade on Earth started, in 1950, with The New York Times labeling the American novelist as the greatest writer since Shakespeare. In 1952, he published The Old Man and the Sea, his last major work of fiction. Two years later, in 1954, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. That same year, the writer barely survived two plane crashes—in as many days—while in Africa. But the six years that followed were unkind to Hemingway and ended with his suicide in 1961. Before he took his life, he sat down in 1956 to compose a letter from his home in Cuba to his publisher Charles Scribner Jr. “I started writing short stories which is the hardest thing for me,” he wrote. “You can always publish them after I’m dead.” On Saturday, one of those stories, “A Room on the Garden Side,“ will be published for the first time.

The year in which Hemingway wrote “A Room on the Garden Side” was a difficult one for the 57-year-old novelist. As his biographer Carlos Baker wrote, by 1956, Hemingway “hoped to get through the spring without killing anyone, himself included.” He had been in a foul mood for some time, mainly due to his lack of acumen regarding fishing in the waters of Cuba and Peru, and a manuscript about Africa that remained untouched for months on end as he struggled to write. Writing short stories seemed like a promising method by which to redevelop his cadence, and for inspiration he turned to his favorite touchstones: Paris, war-time heroism, and discussions of mortality. “It has some of the necessary ingredients,” said Andrew F. Gulli, the managing editor of The Strand Magazine magazine, the literary quarterly that will publish Hemingway’s story. “A group of courageous characters, hope for the future, nostalgia for the past, a memorable setting (in this case, the iconic Ritz hotel), and the fragility of life.”

“A Room on the Garden Side” is a story told in first person by an American named Robert, just after Allied soldiers liberated Paris from the Nazis in 1944. Robert’s persona mimics Hemingway’s own, all the way down to the fictional character’s nickname: “Papa.” Throughout, Robert sips fine champagne, reads, and carries on conversations with his fellow soldiers about the war that’s just concluded. The setting is pure Hemingway. He was once quoted as having said: “When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.”

While Hemingway was writing the story, he was also working on a memoir about his years as a struggling young expatriate journalist and writer in 1920s Paris, a time when he was living with his first wife and spending time with literary luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein. (The memoir, A Moveable Feast, was published posthumously in 1964.)

By the mid-1950s, “He was aware his powers were kind of waning,” said Kirk Curnutt, a board member at the Hemingway Society, as well as a professor of English at Troy University. “It was a very nostalgic period for him,” as he felt he was nearing the end of his life, but he wanted to ensure that the modern history of Paris was intertwined with his own life story. “I think in particular, in ‘A Room on the Garden Side,’ it’s really confronting the question of: what might have happened had the Allies not reclaimed Paris?”

Some critics may wonder why, some six decades after his death, the Hemingway estate has decided to publish the short story. While the cynical might view it as a money grab, some Hemingway acolytes believe the moment has meaning.

“We are currently at a very important time in our nation’s history, both in terms of our relationship with Western Europe and our own liberal values,” says Curnutt. “Hemingway’s story brings to the surface our debt to, and our relationship with, our European allies, and how the world would’ve been a more nefarious place had we not banded together to rid the world of evil. Today, it’s easy to forget, but Hemingway’s words force us to confront our past and remember—which, perhaps, makes the text more important now than it was when he wrote it in 1956.”

Indeed, as Hemingway’s short story nears its conclusion, the American narrator explains why he felt the need to fight in the war. “I also loved France and Spain next to my own country,” he writes. “I loved other countries, too, but the debt was paid and I thought that the account was closed, not knowing the accounts are never closed.”

The ‘Social Hygiene’ Campaign That Sent Thousands of American Women to Jail

A poster produced by the federal government in 1940.CreditU.S. National Library of Medicine

THE TRIALS OF NINA McCALL
Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades- Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women
By Scott W. Stern
356 pp. Beacon Press. $28.95.

One October morning in 1918, an 18-year-old named Nina McCall walked out of the post office in St. Louis, Mich., where she lived with her widowed mother. Waiting for her on the sidewalk was the town’s deputy sheriff, who ordered her to report to the local health officer for a medical exam. Why he singled out McCall we may never know, but the exam left her bleeding, traumatized and outraged. When the officer declared her to be infected with gonorrhea, McCall protested that she had never been intimate with a man. At which point, as Scott Stern writes in his impressively researched book, “The Trials of Nina McCall,” the doctor “turned on her and thundered, with all the authority of his position and his gender, ‘Young lady, do you mean to call me a liar?’”

Stern’s is the first book-length account of the “American Plan,” a government-sponsored “social hygiene” campaign under which thousands of American women between the early years of the 20th century and the 1960s were forced to undergo gynecological exams, quarantine and detention, all in the name of protecting the country’s citizens from sexually transmitted infections. Stern was a freshman in a lecture course at Yale when his professor mentioned that government efforts to combat sexually transmitted disease had included confining prostitutes to concentration camps. As Stern recounts, he stopped taking notes and turned to Google: “I typed in ‘concentration camps for prostitutes.’ Nothing. I went to Wikipedia and entered the same search. Nothing. This was strange.”

Stern, now a law student at Yale, went on to spend years examining records, including administrative notes, century-old news stories and social workers’ field reports. The book he eventually pieced together, which in earlier form earned him an undergraduate thesis award, is startling, disturbing and terrifically readable. Using McCall’s saga as a narrative spine, Stern chronicles the nationwide network of laws and policies targeting prostitutes and any other woman whose alleged sexual activity made her a potential carrier of venereal disease.

No proof that a woman was selling sex for pay was required in order to haul her in for testing. Local police and health officials targeted women who in their view acted too flirtatious, enjoyed themselves too much around soldiers or simply worked as waitresses. In one Louisiana town near an Army installation, a woman was forcibly examined because she’d been spotted dining in a restaurant alone. Women of color were rounded up in especially high numbers; Stern cites officials who “enthusiastically warned that nonwhite women were less moral, intent on infecting soldiers and that blacks in particular were a ‘syphilis soaked race.’”

On paper, the laws of the American Plan were gender-neutral, applicable to “any person reasonably suspected by the health officer of being infected with any of the said diseases.” In practice, the laws targeted women, and those judged to be infected were quarantined in jails, converted hospitals and former brothels fitted out with barbed wire-topped walls. Breakouts and rebellions were common: In Los Angeles, women hacked through a fence with a stolen butcher knife; in Seattle, they tied up the guards in sheets and busted through plate glass. “In one wing of the horribly overcrowded Louisville jail,” Stern writes, “quarantined women staged a riot about once a week.”

American authorities didn’t invent the blame-loose-women approach to stamping out venereal disease; they imported it from Europe. In 19th-century Paris, Stern reports, under what was known as the French Plan, prostitutes were made to bare their genitals before health inspectors. Those found to be infected could be jailed and compelled to undergo mercury injections, then the standard, if mostly ineffective, treatment for venereal disease. (“Throbbing pain, kidney damage, inflammation or ulceration of the mouth and terrible skin rashes” were typical side effects, Stern writes.)

It wasn’t until the 1940s that doctors understood that penicillin could knock out syphilis and gonorrhea. When Nina McCall was quarantined in 1918 — bullied into three months inside a Michigan “detention hospital” — she was injected with the toxins then still in fashion: mercury and, Stern surmises, remedies based on arsenic. Her teeth loosened. Her hair started falling out. She pleaded to go home. She insisted she’d been falsely suspected of consorting with “soldier boys”; Stern found evidence suggesting that she may never have had a sexually transmitted infection.

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Richard Ford Reads “Displaced” With Deborah Treisman

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Richard Ford reads his short story from the August 6 & 13, 2018, issue of the magazine. Ford is the author of five short-story collections and seven novels, including “Independence Day,” “The Lay of the Land,” and “Canada.” He is working on a new collection titled “The Irish in America.”

~~~  LISTEN  ~~~

Writer Craig Childs Tracks The First People In North America

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Author Craig Childs on the Harding Icefield in Alaska.

(Sarah Gilman)

When I emailed nature writer Craig Childs recently, he sent back a perfectly characteristic reply: “I’m going to be scrambling through the desert for the next week,” he wrote. “Let’s find each other on the other side.”

Childs is an award-winning nature writer and commentator on NPR. Most of his books have been inspired by the desert southwest, where he often explores for weeks on end. Lately, Childs has tackled bigger topics, like how the world will end, and more recently, how people came to the Americas.

An ice camp on the Harding Icefield in south-central Alaska, where author Craig Childs scoped out ice-crossing conditions.

(Craig Childs)

He has spent the past five years traveling far from his home in Western Colorado to track humans’ entry onto this continent during the Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago. His adventures from what’s left of the Bering Ice Bridge to the Florida panhandle are the basis of a book due out next year to be called “Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America.” Childs will talk about it Thursday night at Chautauqua in Boulder.

 

~~~  LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW  ~~~