Thursday, February 18, 2010

They don't make justices like John Marshall anymore ...

Marshall: Writings by John Marshall (Library of America, $40)

Journalists (and all other kinds of writers) would do well to heed the advice of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who believed that in both speaking and writing "clearness and precision are most essential qualities. The man who by seeking embellishment hazards confusion, is greatly mistaken in what constitutes good writing . . . The writer should always express himself so clearly as to make it impossible to misunderstand him. He should be comprehended without an effort."
That dictum was the guiding principle behind all of Marshall's prose and the reason that contemporary readers of Marshall: Writings can easily traverse the two-hundred-year gulf between his time and ours.

Marshall collects more than 200 of the essays, judicial opions, legal agruments, letters, speeches, resolutions and reports penned by John Marshall between 1779 and 1835, as well as selections from his Life of George Washington.

The Book Serf asked historian and Marshall editor Charles F. Hobson, author of The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law, the following questions:

Book Serf: It has been said that, eventually, a biographer must come to loathe his subject. You lived with John Marshall for quite some time. Do you think that's true?

Charles Hobson. Not at all. Who said this? As I said somewhere, Marshall, like fine wine, got better with age. I count myself extremely fortunate to have been associated with him (through his papers) for more than 30 years of my life. I never got tired of spending my days with him.

BS: Imagine John Marshall as a contemporary. (Not difficult, given how forward-thinking he was!) A friend asks you, So what's he like?

CH: In a nutshell, charming, delightful company, full of good cheer and bonhomie, treating high and low with equal attention. He had a knack for putting others at ease, particularly young lawyers appearing in his court for the first time. He took great pleasure in the company of close friends, perhaps most memorably as a member of the Barbecue Club in Richmond, where that town’s elite gathered on Saturday mornings in good weather to pitch quoits, feast on good food, and imbibe punch. He possessed the common touch, a plain and simple manner that endeared him to all except for Thomas Jefferson.

BS: I love Marshall's description of great writing having to do with clarity and precision. Describe his strengths (and weaknesses?) as a writer.

CH: Well, his strengths were just that, clarity and precision. As he told his grandson, never let the reader mistake your meaning or even struggle to comprehend it. Like any writer, he fell into sloppiness when he was in a hurry to meet deadlines — as in composing the draft of the first edition of the Life of George Washington. Another example, perhaps, was his opinion in the treason trial of Aaron Burr, which concluded on a Saturday and the opinion delivered on the following Monday. In such instances, Marshall tended to excessive verbiage and repetition.

BS: William Faulkner once said, The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past. In what ways do we take for granted our United States of America that wouldn't be so had Marshall not exerted such influence on our founding in the early 1800s? What might America look like had Marshall not been Chief Justice for 34 years?

CH: This is a “counterfactual” question, not particularly congenial to my tastes and training as a historian. I caution against attributing too much to a single person — the “great man” theory of history. All I can say with any confidence is that Marshall was in the right place at the right time — that is, he had the opportunity to be creative, to some extent write on a clean slate, map uncharted territory, etc., and that he made the most of his opportunity. More than anyone else, he contributed to the emergence of the judiciary — and the Supreme Court in particular — as a major player in our tripartite scheme of government.

The judiciary — the third and “least dangerous” branch — had acquired significantly greater power and authority by 1835 than it had when Marshall became chief justice in 1801. Now, this might have happened without Marshall. It is also possible that the judiciary, without Marshall at the helm, could have receded into relative insignificance.

BS: Why should the contemporary reader care about John Marshall? What can we learn from him, not only in his role of longest-termed Chief Justice in our nation's history but also as a husband, a father, a friend?

CH: Marshall, indeed, seems to be the very embodiment of judicial wisdom, just the sort of person who should preside over the highest court in the land. In a sense, he created and defined the office, and all subsequent Chiefs have looked to him as the model.

With the robes of office removed, Marshall was a flesh and blood human being — a devoted husband to his wife “Polly,” who was often in precarious physical and emotional health. He was a kind and understanding father to five sons and one daughter. His children were born over a period of 21 years. When he was 60 in 1815, Marshall had sons still in their teens, all of whom had a penchant for getting into trouble. John, Jr., for example, managed to get himself expelled from Harvard for unspecified “immoral and dissolute” behavior. Polly Marshall’s fragile health evidently had its origins in a difficult birth while Marshall was absent in France on a diplomatic mission. She became reclusive, confined to a small circle of family and close friends. She could not stand noise of any kind, so Marshall admonished all visitors to remove their boots or shoes when entering the house. Whenever there was to be a big celebration in town with fireworks — Fourth of July, Christmas, Washington’s Birthday — Marshall made sure that Polly was taken to their farm on the Chickahominy River a few miles east of Richmond. At times her condition became so bad that Marshall felt isolated from society — a difficult situation for the decidedly convivial Chief Justice. When he was away in Washington, he wrote tender and amusing letters to Polly.

Marshall also enjoyed warm friendships, none deeper than that with Joseph Story, his younger brother on the Supreme Court. The venerable Virginian and the New England Yankee had genuine affection for each other, which comes through wonderfully in the letters they exchanged. It was Story who in 1827 prompted Marshall to write an autobiographical account of his life before becoming Chief Justice.

BS:Is there a recent (last 10 years or so?) Supreme Court ruling that would have Marshall rolling over in his grave?

CH: This is the sort of question I tend to shy away from. As a historian, I can only speak of Marshall in his own time and place. Without naming any cases, I will venture to say that Marshall attempted so far as possible to separate law and politics. There are perhaps some recent decisions in which he would be concerned that the Supreme Court had ventured too far into the political sphere.

Marshall is best known, of course, for invoking judicial review in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). However, I think a more characteristic opinion is McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), in which Marshall and the Court upheld the constitutionality of an act of Congress. Marshall allowed great deference to Congress to define the limits of its own powers.

BS: Can you relate to us your favorite anecdote about Marshall , something that reveals his character or intelligence or wit?

CH: There are many anecdotes, which I think says a lot about his character. Marshall’s simple and unpretentious manner, as well as his sense of humor and delight in a good joke, come through in the story of Marshall at the Richmond market.

It was not unusual for gentlemen to do the family marketing, though they were usually accompanied by a servant who would carry the various purchases back home. Marshall shopped by himself, stuffing a chicken, turkey, or whatever in his coat pocket. One day a young man all dressed up in aristocratic finery happened to be at market without his servant. Having purchased a chicken, he was much distressed that he had no one to carry the fowl home for him. He was obviously a recent arrival in Richmond, for he turned to a plainly dressed older man and asked him if he would carry his chicken. The man obliged him and on arriving at the young dandy’s house he was rewarded with a small coin for his trouble. The Chief Justice removed his hat and did a slow bow before returning to do his own shopping.

BS: Guess I have to ask this "required" Library of America question! What single piece of writing did you most regret leaving out of the collection?

CH: There is no single piece that I regret omitting because I think what is included is both representative and comprehensive. In other words, nothing was left out that would have added to our knowledge and understanding of the man.

BS: The subtitle of one of your books is John Marshall and the Rule of Law. Can you discuss Marshall 's contribution to our country's understanding of the "rule of law"?

CH: Marshall’s whole career was the embodiment of this concept. He spoke of it explicitly in the famous early case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), when he said the U.S. government “has been emphatically termed a government of laws, & not of men.” In that context, he was thinking in terms of legal rights and remedies — that is when our individual rights are violated we can seek redress in the courts.

But I think he had a broader understanding of the “rule of law” as an attitude or habit of mind ingrained in the American people that democracy and majority rule must be bounded and limited by law — of which the most fundamental is the Constitution. The phrase “rule of law” is often used in contrast to the “will of the people.” Marshall’s idea was that the two work in tandem to produce what he called a “well regulated democracy.”

In other words the American people, by their Constitution, agree that it is their “will” to be limited and bounded by law. Marshall did more than anyone to carve out a large role for the Supreme Court to enforce the “rule of law,” but he never asserted that this could be achieved exclusively or even primarily by the Court. To be a reality, the “rule of law” had to be the duty and responsibility of all departments of government and ultimately of the people at large.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Robert Flanagan's Top 5 Boxing Short Stories ...

Novelist/poet/short story writer/essayist/raconteur Robert Flanagan provides us with his list of the Top 5 Boxing Short Stories of All Time:

1. “The Croxley Master,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Why is this story always included in collections of best boxing fiction? Not because its author created Sherlock Holmes but because it is one of the best. Surgery assistant Montgomery needs one more university course to give him his medical license but no one will loan him the money. A dust-up with a boorish pug whom Montgomery, a gentleman amateur, flattens, leads him to enter a big money fight. His opponent is Silas Craggs, the dreaded Croxley Master, in a 20 round bout fought with 2 oz gloves, Queensbury rules.

2. “The Battle Royal,” Ralph Ellison: This is prizefighting in its most brutal, elemental form. Blindfolded black boys fight to the last man standing for a prize given by dominant whites and those left standing are thrown coins they scrabble to pick up. Published separately as a story, “The Battle Royal” became the first chapter of Ellison’s novel Invisible Man.

3. “Fifty Grand,” Ernest Hemingway: A man’s world, boxing, and in this tale manly men, Irish, Jewish and Black, fill it to the brim. Fighter Jack Brennan is stoic, the dialogue is laconic, the thinking cynical. The boredom of training camp, the manipulations of managers, the insatiable hunger for money all are here, along with a doubled double-cross killer ending.

4. “He Swung and He Missed,” Nelson Algren: Included in his great collection The Neon Wilderness, this story of character and heart captures the world of the urban downtrodden hoping for one lucky break. Young Rocco may be a loser but he’s never a quitter and his heart-felt line to his wife, “You got good odds, honey,” is a winner.

5. “The Mexican” & “Steak,” Jack London: The author of The Call of the Wild was a fierce boxing fan, writing about it in newspaper features (such as his racist attacks on Jack Johnson) and in his fiction. “The Mexican” is Felipe Rivera, a young man so committed to buying rifles for the Mexican revolution that he fights as the underdog in a “winner take all” bout. In “Steak” Tom King was once a comer. Now, stripped of promise, he fights because that’s all he knows how to do. It’s no longer a dream but just a business. When he was young King beat aging pugs; now it’s his turn to be beaten by up-and-comers.

Honorable Mention: “His Brother’s Keeper,” Dashiell Hammett; “Champion,” Ring Lardner.

An excerpt from Robert Flanagan's work-in-progress!

Last week, Robert Flanagan (Maggot, Naked to Naked Goes, Loving Power) provided The Book Serf with his Top 5 boxing novels ever. We recruited Bob for the job because, as we said in the introduction to his entry, he had earned, in the ring, two detached retinas.

This week we're fortunate not only to have Flanagan's Top 5 Boxing Stories of All Time (see entry below) but also an excerpt (here) from his as-yet unpublished novel, Champions, which follows the exploits of Catholic boy and Toledo native Pat McCandless, boxer-cum-comedian.

By Robert Flanagan

Although Billy Conn claimed boxing was simple -- keep your chin down, your hands up, and your ass off the canvas, Pat McCandless had found you could learn a lot in the gym, if you could take the pain.
First off, you learned that if you went into the ring, you were bound to get hit. No matter how good you were, you got hit. Even the best got hit. Skeeter McClure, Willy Pep, even Sugar Ray Robinson. So you didn't need to feel when you ate leather that it meant there was something wrong with you. And when you got hit right, your eyes watered. But you learned that tears meant nothing, they were only an involuntary reaction, they were nothing to be ashamed of. It was the same with everyone. It was like bleeding -- you got cut, you bled. Like getting tagged on the side of the jaw where a nerve crossed over the bone there -- when the nerve was pinched, your legs jackknifed and you went down. It was automatic, it had nothing to do with character, toughness or will, it was just structure and mechanics. One of the many hard facts of life, as your coach explained, which you might as well learn now as later.
You learned that you could get cut and knocked down and still go on, that you were not as breakable as you'd secretly feared.
You learned that feeling afraid before a bout was nothing to worry about. Everyone felt the same way just as everyone bled. Fear was your friend, your coach taught you, because it made you careful. Show him a man who said he felt no fear going into the ring and he'd show you a liar or a fool. You learned because you listened to what you were told: he can run but he can't hide; make him miss and make him pay; kill the body and the head will fall. You listened because you believed it could save you from humiliation, pain and loss.
You learned to your surprise that your opponent was not your enemy. He was there to help you find out just how good you were.
You learned things that no one ever told you, things that you never told anyone. How morning roadwork was like serving the early side altar mass, it was lonely but helped you to believe in yourself. How gym work -- skip rope, medicine ball, light bag, heavy bag -- was like saying the Stations of the Cross, a penance for weakness, yet giving you hope of being redeemed.
What didn't you learn in the gym?
If your nose bled, you were to clinch and press it into your opponent's collarbone to help stop the bleeding. With a puffy eye, you were not to blow your nose as you risked closing the eye and having the referee stop the fight.
You learned that everything was a matter of timing. Don't let your man get set to deliver. You see him get ready, either beat him to the punch or change the distance between you.
Everything was a matter of angles. Never square up, but come in on the angle. Don't ever back up in a straight line, but always slip away to the side. Everything was a matter of knowing. Know what it was your opponent most wanted to do and then stop him from doing it. Be smart -- don't fight the other man's fight, fight your fight. Box a puncher and punch a boxer. A big hitter against a stick-and-move jabber could make lots of mistakes and still win, but a boxer against a puncher could not afford to be wrong even once. A man with knockout power was like someone born rich, he had an edge you'd never have.
Life was not fair. You could be Rocky Marciano, come along and knock out over-the-hill Joe Louis and grandpappy Walcott, have a tough time beating a second-rater like Roland LaStarza and light heavyweight king Archie Moore, never fight one heavyweight of note while in his prime, yet have people call you a great champion. Or you could be Ezzard Charles and give it your all -- brains and moves and beautiful technique, have everything but size and a big punch, and people hadn't the sense to appreciate your talent. But you didn't whine about it. It wouldn't change anything. If you felt bad about falling short of the mark you'd set yourself, you kept it to yourself. Because that was what it meant to take pride in yourself and in your craft.
You learned to take whatever came your way -- tough loss or dull draw -- as you took roadwork, another step along the way, something to face without crying why me? Or trying to blame it on anyone else.
Because it was just in the nature of things. That was the heart of what you learned. If you got into the ring, you were bound to get hit.

An excerpt from Champions, a novel in progress.
Published in The Civic Arts Review, Ohio Wesleyan University, Bernard Murchland, editor.

For more information and to buy Flanagan's books, visit

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don DeLillo's White Noise, revisited ...

White Noise by Don DeLillo (Penguin, $16)
I have a reading list that no one knows about, a dark little secret list I assume all serious readers keep but don't advertise: Books I Should Already Have Read.
Don DeLillo's White Noise falls into that category.
The novel, which has been out for 25 years, was recently reissued by Penguin Classics in a Deluxe Edition with an introduction by the novelist Richard Powers.
Powers loved the book when it came out in 1985 and still loves it today: "The publication of White Noise ... placed Don DeLillo at the center of contemporary cultural imagination. I can think of few books written in my lifetime that have received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter. I can think of even fewer books more likely to remain essential guides to life in the Information Age, another quarter century on."
My exposure to DeLillo was limited. I had read (or attempted to, anyway) Underworld, after reading about it in the New York Times Book Review. The opening section of that book is a tour de force, a wild ride through America of the 1950s that features cameo appearances by Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason and a more substantial role for J. Edgar Hoover. Much of the section is set in Brooklyn, at the Dodgers vs. Giants game that produced Bobby Thompson's "shot heard round the world."
Reading that first section was exhilarating. I might even, one day, return to it. But something happened along the rest of my journey through the over-long Underworld: I stopped caring about the characters in the book and then, finally, about the book itself.
Though mightily praised upon its release in 1997, Underworld was not universally loved. At the time, critic James Wood complained, "To call Underworld, Don DeLillo's large novel, a failure might seem an act of slightly flirtatious irrelevance. The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ. Moreover, Don DeLillo's huge endeavor represents a promise to restock the novel's wasting pedigree in our age, and few want to see the promise broken. It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism.
"But DeLillo's novel, despite chapters of great brilliance, does not gather its local victories as a book this large should. Instead, it enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax. Curiously, it is at once distractingly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal: Its many characters dissolve an intensity which the novel insists on repeating."
I couldn't agree more. And the same criticism, Richard Powers notwithstanding, could be applied to White Noise, which is brilliant in some of its parts but fails to captivate (at least this reader) in a way that makes finishing the novel a priority or even a possibility.
Powers raises the question, Should a novel, any novel, attempt to be a "guide" (essential or otherwise) to life in a given era or age?
To which I would answer, Not if the aforementioned novel sets out to be a guide. For starters, even the best novelist can only give you his or her interpretation of an age. Hemingway's Paris is utterly unlike Jean Rhys' Paris though they lived there at nearly the same time. And the writers of guide books inevitably do what is poison to the novelist: they preach, they become didactic, they set themselves above the reader.
Still, White Noise does, like all of DeLillo's novels, have its deathless moments of insight. What with the disaster in Haiti fresh in my mind, I was especially struck by DeLillo's contemplation of media coverage of natural disasters.
That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We'd never before been so sensitive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie, brought close to tears by a sitcom husband arguing with his wife, appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death. Babette tried to switch to a comedy series about a group of racially mixed kids who build their own communications satellite. She was startled by the force of our objection. We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackles and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.
When Jack Gladney gets to work the following day (at The College-on-the-Hill) he discusses with his colleagues our obsession with natural disasters on television. Alfonse Stompanato, the chair of the "American Environments" Department, explains:
The flow is constant. Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
This is not only screamingly funny, but also eerie. Substitute Haiti for California and listen to Pat Robertson talk about that country's pact with Satan to overthrow the French, and we have, yet again, morbid fascination coupled with the sense that the Haitians' doom is somehow "warranted."