Movie review: East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.

A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.

So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.

East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.

Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.

East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.

Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.

After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.

After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.

Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.

As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.

I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.

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Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

Book review: Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me was a fascinating read. The author sets out to examine twelve school textbooks for their accuracy, completeness, and use in school settings and then write about different ways that the history in these textbooks and ones like them have failed us.

History in a school setting is often uninspiring, incomplete, and in some cases flat out wrong. It should, according to Loewen, invite questions and debates. It should encourage students to think about the past and how the past relates to their lives or informs the current situation. History should be an excellent way to develop the critical thinking skills that engaged citizens need. Instead, history is taught in a way to develop allegiance and blind patriotism—as if one cannot be patriot and also critical of or question the actions of one’s government.

All of these points are well taken. I don’t remember particularly liking history or social studies in school, but I didn’t particularly hate it. However, as an adult, I love history because of the very things that Loewen mentions—the sense of perspective it gives, an understanding of current events, and the development of critical thinking skills.

Throughout the book, Loewen shows time and time again the lies we were told about history and then explains the damage and consequences that resulted from these lies. It is all a bit disheartening. He unpacks the erroneous history about several events or subjects: hero-making, Columbus, Thanksgiving, Native Americans, the invisibility of racism AND anti-racism, the myth of opportunity, the federal government always on the side of good, the lack of recent history, and the myth of progress.

I enjoyed learning from the examples that Loewen provides about how we were misled and mistaught in school. I had no idea about Helen Keller’s adult life. I merely kind of thought (without questioning it) that her life ended in a figurative sense after Ann Sullivan taught her how to interact with the world. Instead, I learned about her rich life as a social activist for class rights and women’s rights.

And President Wilson, whom I suspected was not the squeaky-clean hero that he is portrayed to be, turned out to have been quite the racist and military interventionist. By learning about his actions in the early 20th century, I can see more clearly see the antecedents of the path the US went down in race relations. I can also see the roots of chaos in Latin America—all thanks to the wars we engaged in and the democratic governments we overthrew. By seeing the past, I see the consequences of these actions in the present.

Such knowledge is invaluable. How the US acts affects the future. Why aren’t our early 20th century actions in Iran taken into account when dealing with Iran today? We have collective amnesia or more aptly, we are all collectively ignorant of the fact that we created the Iran that we vehemently oppose today.

As Loewen works through the history that we were taught and unpacks misconceptions, he describes several archetypes. One is hero-fication. Individuals must be presented in a good light as defined by current norms. No blemishes. No complexity. Ignore the slave ownership of founding fathers or their contradictory statements on the issue.

Another archetype or assumption is the arch of progress. Loewen unveils this lie and the blame it causes. If everything is getting better and better, but they aren’t for you, then you are the problem. Those reaping the benefits of so-called progress see it as the result of their abilities. Those not reaping the benefits blame themselves.

Besides the blame heaped on those not in the privileged position, this myth of progress also encourages passivity. There is no impetus to change anything. No need to fight or condemn racist conditions. After all, things are better than they were and will continue to get better. Only we know from history that isn’t the case. After the progress made for blacks during Reconstruction, a dark period descended on the country and gains that blacks made were lost.

Another myth is one that insists that more education leads to tolerance. In fact, Loewen unveils this lie through information on who backed the Vietnam War at the time and who we think backed the Vietnam War, as well as our rationalism about our current interpretation. It is fascinating though disturbing work to unveil unseen myths and assumptions. Education is a socializing tool. The more educated you are, the more you tend to support the system. (There was a reason why re-education was/is used in the USSR and China. They knew that education can lead to allegiance to the state and the status quo.)

Couple allegiance with the myth that the state only does good and you have a populace that will support anything the state does, including wars. Loewen mentions that the college-educated tend to be Republican and the uneducated Democrat, though I wonder what he would make of our current climate where everything seems to be upside down and nothing in politics operates as normal.

After unpacking the lies we were taught, Loewen discusses why history is taught like this and proposes ways it should be taught. In brief, the answers about why are money and ideology, and the how is engaging students in projects to show how the past affects their lives now. Unlike other subjects, history is treated as subjective. We all have different perspectives on events and do not want our children to be taught potentially opposing views. As a nation that doesn’t foster debate, we do not want to foster debate in the classroom or teach our children to think. If they are to think, it is to think how we think, whether how we think is correct about an historical event or not, whether we think critically or not.

Without a critical understanding of the past, we cannot understand where we are and we cannot move forward to propose solutions to societal ills. We miss out on seeing the causes of racism and then cannot begin to recognize racism among us, let alone address it. The same can be said about social class and poverty. Or marginalized groups. Without critically examining the past and knowing what the past really is, we miss out on understanding the present and remedying long festering situations. Things do not get better with ignorance or misunderstanding (or even time). Instead, they get worse through perpetuation.

Loewen taught me about some of the mishistory I knew and some history that I didn’t know about. He also challenged me to question what I read, what I am told, and what I am taught. He proposes that students ask questions about sources of information:

  • Why was the source written or spoken? Contextualize it by placing it in the social structure and the agenda of the speaker or writer.
  • Whose viewpoint is presented? What interests does it serve? What viewpoints are omitted?
  • Is the account believable? Are there contradictions?
  • Is the account backed up by other sources? How is one supposed to feel about the America that has been presented? Look at the choice of words and images used.

I would propose, especial in the age of fake news, that these sorts of questions and this sort of critical thinking is what we should apply to all aspects of information, historical or current. I would also add that we should ask ourselves: what assumptions does this interpretation of events make? What assumptions am I making? Fish rarely realize the water they swim in. To see the water we swim in is to see reality. To see the assumptions that we and society make helps strip away interpretations so we can better understand and effect change when needed.

Loewen’s work on historical education came out of his time teaching in Mississippi. He was shocked to hear the erroneous views his students had about Reconstruction and how harmful these beliefs were to them. As a means of social control and white supremacy over blacks, Reconstruction had been reinvented as a time when blacks were in power throughout the south, made a mess out of it, and whites had to step back in to fix things. None of this is true but if this is the narrative you are told as a black American, what does this do to your beliefs about black Americans, their abilities, and yourself? In reaction, Loewen wrote a history textbook. He had to sue the state to get it on the state’s list of approved textbooks.

I bet Mississippi: Conflict and Change would make a fascinating read and follow-up after Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Book review: The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner

It is amazing how much of Pooh sticks with you over the years.

I had a longing to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh and managed to get my hands on the complete works of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I remember one particular Pooh book from my youth: the one where Pooh visits Rabbit and gets stuck in his doorway. This story is included in the complete works.

The Pooh stories were clearly inspired by a young boy and his teddy bear. Originally in the stories the bear was named Edward Bear but quickly referred to as Winne-the-Pooh. Milne created these stories to entertain a real Christopher Robin who dragged his stuffed bear around.

The stories in Winne-the-Pooh contain the original cast of characters: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo. The House At Pooh Corner introduces Tigger to the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin is always popping in and out of the stories. He lives in a tree in the forest but is often out doing things and only occasionally joins the other inhabitants in the forest.

The stories were a delight to reread. I remember most, if not all, of the various chapter-length tales—the game of Poohsticks, Roo’s Strengthening Medicine, Eeyore losing his tail. This odd collection of friends is timeless. They do not age and frankly neither do you. Like Christopher Robin in the stories, you can pop in to visit them at any time and it feels like no time has passed since you last interacted with them.

Pooh and his friends seem like archetypes—I always thought that they each represent different aspects of ourselves. Rabbit the know-it-all. Owl the wise and knowledgeable. Kanga the kind mother. Roo the overexcited youngster. Eeyore the perpetually depressed. Piglet the anxious and fearful. (Well, he is a Very Small Animal after all.) Tigger the exuberant lover of life. Pooh the calm, humble bear who accepts all. (My favorite was always Tigger who is quite bouncy.)

I was surprised that in addition to the stories, I remembered the dialogue. Milne had a way with witty banter. I often found myself laughing out loud at exchanges between characters. In one story, Rabbit clearly wanted to be left alone, but he encountered Pooh who wanted to talk. (Who hasn’t been in this situation before?) “Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.” (page 106)

Other times, Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain, says something quite profound. Piglet, who is always nervous and worried, asks Pooh a question as they are walking in the forest. “Supposing a tree feel down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (page 272)

Other times he clearly is not too bright. As Piglet observed, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.” (page 122). He cannot remember left from right. He knocks on the door to his own house, mentions that it is taking the occupant forever to answer, and then is reminded that it is his own house. He falls into his own trap for the mythical Heffalump. But he is a true and tried friend to all with a heart of gold.

The last story in the collection is sad—a collective good-bye to Christopher Robin who is clearly going off to school and putting his group of stuffed animals aside to Grow Up. But the nice thing is that the group did not grow old. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood are still there, visiting each other to wish a Happy Thursday or doing simply Nothing. You can join them any time you need a break from Being an Adult.

Asking questions

Quote

“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” ~ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

I tend to ask lots of questions in an effort to understand things. But I’ve discovered that a cohort of people really, really dislike being asked questions (and the people who ask them). Happily, there is another cohort of people who really, really like being asked questions and sharing their knowledge. I’d prefer to live in a world populated by the latter folks.