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Culture Watch

In this issue:

BOOKS:
There has never been a First Lady who could  match the zeal, political savvy and idealism of Eleanor Roosevelt, and this second volume of a major biography historian Blanche Wiesen Cook  treats the five dramatic years after F.D.R. became President and his wife started a women's crusade to change the world. A must-read for Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole. "On the Bus with Rosa Parks"  is the newest collection of poems by Rita Dove, a former poet laureate of the U.S.  Emotions are imbedded gem-like in the clean structure and restrained rhythms of her poems, and Dove lends her pure and unique voice to the acts and dreams of African-Americans.

AND CONSIDER THIS :
In "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I: 1884-1933" Blanche Wiesen Cook traces her earliest years from birth to the White House, the first book in a multi-volume project that reveals the former First Lady in a new light. Looking at life from beyond 50 and finding its pleasures is a theme in Helen Hills' guide to "Aging Well.'' Space travel never looked better--or fresher-- than it does in the late Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
 
 

Books

Lasting Legacy of a First Lady

Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume Two 1933-1938 
by Blanche Wiesen Cook (Viking; 686 pages; $34.95)

     One of Eleanor Roosevelt's first acts after moving into the White House was to insist on operating the private elevator herself and not wait for one of the doormen to take her up and down. This shocked the chief usher,  who told her that ''such a thing was just not done by the President's wife.'' Mrs. Roosevelt walked into the elevator, and closing the door, informed him, "Now it is.''
     The small act of independence was a giant step for a First Lady, and one that has yet to be matched by any subsequent wife of a President, including Hillary Clinton. As historian Blanche Wiesen Cook makes plain in this second volume of her excellent biography, Eleanor Roosevelt did things that had never been done before, and the dramatic list illustrates the range of Mrs. Roosevelt's concerns. "She upset race traditions,'' Cook writes," championed a New Deal for women, and on certain issues actually ran a parallel administration.'' She instituted and engineered government policies on housing and model communities for workers, orchestrating the construction of a Utopian-style community in a poverty-stricken area of West Virginia. She was tireless in bringing influential women into government, and through the wide network of female social activists fought for improvements in public health, education and working conditions. 
     Back in 1928, Eleanor had written that men go into politics to win elections and women go into politics to change the world, and she seemed determined to prove her point in record speed. The formerly reserved young matron blossomed  in the glare of the public spotlight, and her prodigious energy left others gasping: she wrote books, magazine articles, spoke on the radio, and made public appearances on the lecture stage, at conferences, marches and meetings and even famously once popped underground to inspect a coal mine. Time magazine dubbed her "Eleanor Everywhere.'' She rode horseback in the mornings--before F.D.R was awake--swam in the White House pool constructed for her husband, and wrote volumes of letters every day.
       Because the crippled F.D.R was limited in his ability to move about and mix freely with the American people, ER became his emissary as well as his eyes and ears. Every night, Cook recounts, she  "placed memos in her husband's bedside basket urging him to do what she believed needed most urgently to be done.''  And there was plenty that needed attention. F.D.R.'s efforts to put the nation back on course have been well documented in numerous books. This second of a multi-volumed biography covers the five years from F.D.R.'s first Inauguration to 1938, when the ominous war clouds grew ever more threatening, and Cook does an admirable job of shedding light on ER's role in both domestic and international politics.
       In the areas of  feminism and civil rights  ER was ahead of her time. The New Deal, as Cook rigorously records, was less good for women than it was for men, and ER set about to remedy that by urging an equal pay scale for both sexes and deploring such cost-cutting and discriminatory measures as the firing of married women who were on the federal payroll. As allies, she mobilized friends and activists in the loose network of  reformers, and it is important to be reminded of how much of today's social conscience was formed by that cadre of women, rich and poor, who battled against the deplorable working and living conditions of women and children. ER pushed women to make their voices heard as she urged F.D.R to appoint women to government posts. According to Cook, ER believed that "only women in power would consider the needs of women without power; men in power rarely, if ever did.''
     During those first years of the Roosevelt presidency, the brutal torture and lynching of black men in the South reached levels of monstrous depravity. ER's battle for racial equality brought African-American leaders to meet with her in the White House and helped get black activists like Mary McLeod Bethune into key advisory positions, but even ER could not influence her husband to push for an anti-lynching bill. He publicly called lynching "a vile form of collective murder,'' but when the bill was to come before the Senate, F.D.R refused to challenge the Southern leadership of his Democratic Party, knowing full well that in retaliation they would block every piece of his legislation to put Americans on the road to recovery. Still, largely because of his wife's deeply felt and strongly fought battles for racial justice,  for which she was often reviled, F.D.R is today perceived as a champion of the rights of African-Americans.
      While willing to put Eleanor out front to see which way the political and social winds were blowing, F.D.R accorded her no role in international relations. "She was furious to be excluded from decisive conversations,'' Cook writes. In the 1930s, the once and future enemy were the communists, not the fascists, and America's moral sense was held hostage by the continuation of discrimination against its black citizens. Hitler in fact crowed in a 1938 editorial, Cook notes, "that the United States treated black people less humanely than Germany treated Jews.''  For five years ER was publicly silent on what was happening in Europe and only began speaking out in 1938 about the evils of intolerance and evil. While candidly examining ER's failure to use her prestige on behalf of Europe's Jews, to Cook's credit, she places Eleanor's conflicted beliefs in the context of a time when isolationist and anti-war emotions were high and the concept of human rights did not even exist.
      Every First Family is happy or unhappy in its own way, and this rich biography of a remarkable woman explores the close and enduring relationship between Franklin and Eleanor. For the most part, they shared a common vision of America's potential, but their two separate courts in the White House created a constant tension. When angry or hurt, ER could be cold as ice, and F.D.R, as Cook cannily perceives, had a "facade of endless cordiality and determined good cheer, which served also as a notable barrier to intimacy.''  Through their letters to each other, Cook shows the powerful bond between The First Lady and former journalist Lorena Hickok, who at one time had a room in the White House. The pair traveled and vacationed together when they could, and ER relied almost as much on "Hick's'' clear-eyed perceptions of the changing American scene as the President depended on those of his wife.
      History is constantly being revised, and re-assessments of our more recent Presidents will continue as we are better able to view them from a distance. Certainly, Franklin Roosevelt influenced the country--and the world-- as no other Chief Executive of the 20th century has.  The strong ideas of his willful wife shaped many of his finest achievements, and it is to his credit that he was smart enough to listen to her. This engrossing look at her first five years in the White House underscores one vital truth about Eleanor Roosevelt: the best of his legacy is hers.

Rhymes of the Spirit

On the Bus with Rosa Parks  by Rita Dove
(Norton; 95 pages; $21)

       Forty-four years after her quiet defiance on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, Rosa Parks went to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to be awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. It was a way of the nation's saying "Thanks'' to the small, gray-haired woman and honoring an authentic heroine. Another moving tribute comes from Rita Dove, a former poet laureate of the U.S., in her newest collections of poetry, "On the Bus with Rosa Parks.''  The title comes from one of the book's four segments memorializing Parks and other women who, as William Faulkner once said, not endure but prevail. With spare and crystalline elegance in a poem simply called Rosa,  Dove conveys the moment when one simple action by an  unknown woman ignited an entire movement:

           "How she sat there,
           the time right inside a place
           so wrong it was ready.

           That trim name with
           its dream of a bench
           to rest on. Her sensible coat.

           Doing nothing was the doing:
           the clean flame of her gaze
           carved by a camera flash.''

     The final poem in the section treats of Parks years afterward, in a wheelchair now and serenely receiving accolades from an adoring public.

           "The audience descended in a cavalcade of murmuring sequins. She waited. She knew how to abide, to sit in cool contemplation of the expected.''
Attendants push the crowd away, and Parks lifts a hand as if to console the onlookers:

           "The idea of consolation
            soothing us: her gesture
            already become her touch,
            like the history she made for us sitting there,
            waiting for the moment to take her.''

      Dove, who is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, brings a classicist's insistence on meter, and has a master composer's ability to change beat and tempo. The ear delights in her unusual rhymes that are clever and sometimes playful without begging the reader to 'Watch me  write.'  In other sections of this splendid, evocative collection, Dove gives an impressionist's rendering of the dreams and aspirations of a working class family, evokes the life-affirming range of black life in America and reawakens the memory of that first sweet anticipation of the future and the sudden, joyous recognition of the self. One lovely piece is from the perspective of a woman being driven by her grown-up son, thinking of how her body betrays her with aching knees and fluttering heart. Deep within, she remains true to herself:

          "...But I've never
           stopped wanting to cross
           the equator, or touch an elk's
           horns, or sing Tosca or screw
           James Dean in a field of wheat.
           To hell with wisdom. They're all wrong:
            I'll never be through with my life.''
 

And Consider This:

Books::

Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I: 1884-1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook (Penguin; 587 pages; $16.95)

      Born into a family of privilege and dysfunction, Eleanor Roosevelt found her mentors in intelligent, forward-looking women. Well-educated and idealistic, the tall, toothy niece of  President Teddy captivated the tall, handsome future President Franklin. Dominated by an imperious mother-in-law, and harried by a brood of children, the young matron submerged her talents, but bided her time as she became a center of a web of busy women who believed in making society better. Biographer Cook deals fairly and honestly with the troubled Roosevelt marriage, Franklin's infidelity and Eleanor's erotic and romantic relations with another man -- and another woman. By force of will and passion, she remade herself from an ugly duckling, changing not into an idle swan, but into something more imposing: a modern woman who soared like an eagle.

Books:
Aging Well: Exploring the Land of Our Later Years by Helen Hills

(Haley's; 166 pages; $14.95)

Scientists are laboring mightily and often successfully to uncover ways to slow the aging process. It can't be halted, though, and so the best thing is to do what the title of Helen Hills' book advises. Most people would rather spend a summer without air conditioning than think about preparing for their old age. Hills takes the sting out gently by focusing on the benefits of exercise, and creativity and maintaining a joyous outlook. Through interviews and quotes by writers and philosophers, Hills offers helpful sign posts to becoming whole, and growing into the self you were always meant to be.

Video:
2001: A Space Odyssey
  Directed by Stanley Kubrick

When Stanley Kubrick's look into outer space was first released in 1968, the year 2001 seemed light-years away. It is almost upon us now, and with the recent death of the director, the film's worth another look. The unfeeling computer Hal, the mystery of life beyond earth, the magic of space travel don't seem the least bit dated--though the costumes rate a giggle--and that great ape-toss beginning is as stunning as it was almost 30 years ago. Eyes Wide Shut is his final film, so if you can't get enough of Kubrick--and who can?--look again at his three films on the mirthless folly and scorching despair of war: Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket.

sightings

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