Michael Rogin

Michael Rogin died in 2001. Stephen Greenblatt wrote about him in the LRB of 3 January 2002.

Conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that black men are created unequal, the United States has attempted to come to terms with its longue durée of white supremacy only twice in its history. The first effort, made by black and white abolitionists in the period of nationalist expansion, and caught up in the conflict between slave and free labour modes of production,...

Mon Pays: Josephine Baker

Michael Rogin, 22 February 2001

Travelling to Paris recently, I was surprised to see advertisements for ‘Joséphine Baker, Music-hall et paillettes’, an exhibition at the Espace Drouot-Montaigne commemorating the 75th anniversary of her electrifying Paris debut and the 25th anniversary of her death. With its pictures of Baker costumed and nude (and often both at the same time), with some fantastic outfits...

Ralph Ellison wrote his own running commentary on the mammoth fiction he laboured over for the last forty years of his life and failed to finish. When his literary executor John Callahan appended some of these jottings to the end of ‘Juneteenth’, the ‘novel’ he extracted from two thousand manuscript pages, he gave Ellison the last word: the final note reproaches the editor from beyond the grave, along with the readers Callahan has invited into the unfinished structure. ‘Incompletion of form,’ Ellison wrote, ‘allows the reader to impose his own imagination upon the material with too little control from the author. Thus I don’t like to show my work until it is near completion.’ He was responding to an unfavourable reading of portions of the novel which he had shown to two of his friends, Albert Murray and the critic Anatole Broyard.‘

California Noir: Destroying Los Angeles

Michael Rogin, 19 August 1999

The first picture to greet the reader shows cars half-submerged under water, scattered in all directions as far as the eye can see. ‘January 1995 storm (Long Beach)’, the caption reads; ‘Apocalypse Theme Park’ is the heading that introduces the section to follow. Welcome to Ecology of Fear. Turn the page for the second photograph, which displays a collapsed freeway behind a ‘Los Angeles City Limit’ sign. Opposite this evidence of damage is a table entitled ‘Biblical Disasters?’ that lists the deaths and dollar-losses from three years of earthquake, fire, riot and flood in the mid-Nineties. Ecology of Fear throws just about everything at metropolitan Los Angeles: water, earthquake and drought (Chapter 1), concrete (Chapter 2), fire (Chapter 3), wind (Chapter 4), wild beasts (Chapter 5), science fiction (Chapter 6) and spatial apartheid (Chapter 7).

‘The 20th century belongs to the United States because of the triumph of its faith in its founding idea of political and economic freedom.’ Not only did the American people ‘grow rich and expand their domestic freedoms. They sustained Western civilisation by acts of courage, generosity and vision unparalleled in the history of man.’ So Harold Evans introduces his lavishly illustrated ‘popular political history’ of ‘the American century’, written to educate American immigrants like himself about the ‘nature of their heritage’. Something goes wrong when the page numbers change from roman to arabic numerals, however. The first page of Chapter One, ‘The Last Frontier’, introduces us to the theft of the land promised to the Cherokee Indians in perpetuity, and to the gap between a Western history of ‘failure, exploitation and despoliation’ – the effects on the original inhabitants are attended to with eloquent detail – and a mythic West that epitomises the ‘spirit of freedom … in America’s perception of itself.’’‘

Early in 1947 Simone de Beauvoir made her first trip to the United Sates. The Cold War was beginning and, like Sartre, Camus and the rest of their circle, she was searching for a third-camp alternative to Stalinism and American imperialism. Beauvoir was drawn to the United States for other reasons, anticipating, as she put it at the beginning of America Day by Day, the chronicle of the journey that she published the year after she returned to France, ‘a world so full, so rich, and so unexpected that I’ll have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me’.‘

Unmistakable

Michael Rogin, 20 August 1998

The stocking cap, solid black on top and red-ribbed across the tube, an eye popping out at the face end. Red outline for ear, forked red line for mouth, blue-grey near-rectangle vertically placed for shoulder. These lines and shapes precipitate a face, itself un-outlined, from out of white space, the unmistakable head of Harpo Marx. Turn a few more pages of Wendy Wick Reaves’s spectacular book Celebrity Caricature in America, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC until 23 August, and you will also learn unmistakably to recognise the artist, Miguel Covarrubias. There’s Covarrubias again, putting Jean Harlow on the couch below an elongated, brooding Freud; she appears to be dreaming of cacti, shown outside the window lighting up the night sky. Covarrubias is illustrating one of the ‘Impossible Interviews’ that ran in the Vanity Fair of the Thirties. There he is yet again, crowding together in aggressively two-dimensional space, separated only by the prison bars between them, a fat, jowly, smiling, check-suited Al Capone and a white-haired/eyebrowed/moustachioed, black-coated Supreme Court Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes. There’s Harpo again, this time with cotton-wool locks, alongside his brothers – Groucho’s moustache, glasses, cigar, wing-tipped head of hair, Chico’s sly open mouth and steel-wool hair identifying the ersatz Italian Jew. The three faces jump out at you from the sheet music for A Night at the Opera in Al Hirschfeld’s 1935 collage. There’s Al Freuh’s jaunty economical outline of, unmistakably, the showman George M. Cohan spinning his cane, Paolo Garretto’s Babe Ruth as home run baseball floating in the air, unmistakably baseball and unmistakably Ruth. And Henry Major’s Ernst Lubitsch, Will Cotton’s Theodore Dreiser, Hirschfeld’s Bojangles Robinson, and more and more, all well-known and all made new.’‘

On 15 August 1915, a band of 25 men, among them the leading citizens of Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Leo Frank from the Milledgeville Prison Farm, tied a rope around his neck and lynched him. Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory owned by his uncle, had been convicted of the perverted sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory. He was convicted on the testimony of the actual murderer, Jim Conley, a black sweeper at the factory, who claimed that Frank had ordered him to remove the girl’s body from the main floor to the basement (where it had been found) and to write the notes implicating Newt Lee, the black nightwatchman who found the corpse.

Burning Witches

Michael Rogin, 4 September 1997

In 1955, the Daily Express conducted a poll to discover the most popular celebrities according to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow tastes. Raymond Chandler and Marilyn Monroe were, as Chandler put it. ‘the only ones that made all three brows’. Chandler shattered cultural barriers with Philip Marlowe, private investigator, immortalised on the screen by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, mortalised by Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery during Chandler’s lifetime, and afterwards by Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and James Garner. He was the hero of the most listened to radio detective serial in history, and, by the time Chandler died in 1959, had sold over five million books.

Talking More, Lassooing Less

Michael Rogin, 19 June 1997

Will Rogers died in 1935 the most loved man in America. Ray Robinson, who was 14 years old, remembers the news reaching his summer camp by radio and spreading like wildfire from bungalow to bungalow. No death since Abraham Lincoln’s (the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh child aside) had moved the country so much. Motion picture theatres around the country darkened their screens in honour of a top Hollywood star. NBC and CBS went off the air for 30 minutes, paying homage to the most popular voice on radio – a few years earlier Will Rogers had hosted a variety show which had gained the largest audience in history. For the first time in nine years, ‘Will Rogers Says’ – the boxed comments that appeared daily in five hundred newspapers – did not appear. Rogers had been featured on the cover of Time; he had been received at the White House by five Presidents. However, unlike his famous male contemporaries – Charles Lindbergh, Al Jolson, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin – Will Rogers has left no aura. In my tiny recent poll of English intellectuals, no one knew who he was. Nor, having now read Ray Robinson’s reverent but clear sighted biography, do I.’

Crowing

Michael Rogin, 5 September 1996

‘AT&T Welcomes the World,’ announced the giant sign above the Global Olympic Village at Olympic Centennial Park. Although international corporations had built the park to call attention to themselves, ‘sponsor footprints’ like the AT&T tower ‘were not just advertisements’, explained Billy Payne, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games: they showcased ‘state-of-the-art technology’ that ‘people will be seeing for the first time’. The Coca-Cola Corporation built its Olympic City entertainment centre at the northern edge of the park. CNN headquarters – the property value of which increased by 26 percent with the building of the park – lay just to the south-west. On 27 July, film footage carried by CNN displayed first the AT&T Welcome to the World, then beneath it the flash of a bomb.’

Hogshit and Chickenshit

Michael Rogin, 1 August 1996

William Jefferson (‘Bill’) Clinton is not the man from Hope for nothing. And the major story in the American media this election year recounts his resurrection from the politically dead. Indeed, Clinton’s rise is matched in American history only by the equally spectacular fall of George (‘Desert Storm’) Bush, the collapse that put the Arkansas Governor in the White House in the first place. Newt Gingrich rode the Contract with America to victory in 1994, giving Republicans their first control of the House of Representatives under a Democratic president since 1946, and their first control of both houses of Congress since 1952. There are two ways to understand what happened next. From one perspective, the Gingrich revolution was a failure. Emboldened by Gingrich’s attack on medicare and the environment, his effort to finance a tax cut for the rich with the resources of middle America, and his forced closing of the federal government, Clinton finally stood up for principle. Having followed in the footsteps of Millard Fillmore (1850-3), arguably the most obscure and feckless president in American history, whose record of failing to veto an Act of Congress for hundreds of days Clinton was on the point of surpassing (and who had been denied renomination by his own party), Clinton transformed himself into Harry Truman, who turned the 1946 Republican triumph into a Democratic victory two years later.

How Dirty Harry beat the Ringo Kid

Michael Rogin, 9 May 1996

There he stands, mounted on a pedestal, booted, spurred and bigger than life, his enormous, holstered six-shooter set just below the eye-level of passers-by, welcoming travellers to Orange County. He used to straddle the entrance to the John Wayne International Airport; now, so as not to suffer the weatherbeaten fate of the original, the cowboy statue has sought protection from the elements and taken shelter indoors. Florence has David, also transferred from open to inner space; Orange County has John Wayne.

On a drive through the family estate in 1935, the married President, Franklin Roosevelt, starts up a romance with his cousin. The two imagine moving after he leaves office into a cottage he is planning to build on what they affectionately call ‘Our Hill’. The President’s secretary, who lives at the White House (and has lived with the President since he was Governor of New York), thinks her boss will be moving into the cottage with her. The President’s wife, another cousin, stays in her own fieldstone cottage on the estate when she is there without her husband. At his Inauguration she wore the ring given to her by the woman with whom she is in love, the woman she will later install in a White House bedroom across from her own. The First Lady’s passionate attachment to her woman friend has cooled, however, supplanted by her feelings for a radical student leader young enough to be her son. When the President’s wife meets her young man at a Chicago hotel during his furlough from the Army, the Counter-Intelligence Corps bugs their adjoining rooms; video technology would have provided pictures of her stroking his forehead while he slept.

Sucking up

Michael Rogin, 12 May 1994

The United States has been gripped by a campaign to drive violence from television. Some blame violent images for violent acts; others insist that the images themselves do violence. Senators bemoan television brutality, a national debate on the pros and cons of censorship takes centre stage for a time – displaced by other violent attention-getters like Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Singapore’s caning sentence to punish an American teenager, the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ Congressional proposal to jail for life those convicted of three violent crimes (a category that includes any drug-related offence and the use of imitation guns) – but nothing will change. Since violence sells, this campaign will fail. So long as the state is unwilling to interfere with the operations of the marketplace, the debate augments the fascination with violence rather than standing in its way.’

Washed White

Michael Rogin, 10 June 1993

In a time of mass unemployment, budget deficits, infrastructure decay and economic decline, of ethnic cleansing, mass rape, communal violence and racial polarisation, Garry Wills and Sacvan Bercovitch proclaim the power of language to transform the world. Against one current fashion, both reject punning and the play of the socially detached signifier: they embed American words in American history. Against another current fashion, both are exceptionalists, seeing a special destiny for the United States. Earlier exceptionalists celebrated American uniqueness: the history that words transfigure in these two books is one of violence. For Bercovitch, American rhetoric promotes and obfuscates violence; the Gettysburg Address, for Wills, rises above the battle to create something new. The ‘redemptive promises of language’ trap Bercovitch’s United States in repetitive self-absorption; Lincoln at Gettysburg, in Wills’s subtitle, analyses ‘the words that remade America’.

Feeling good

Michael Rogin, 11 January 1990

Ronald Reagan left office more popular than any departing President since the end of World War Two. The same month Americans interviewed in a telephone poll achieved on a happiness scale the highest score in decades. Reagan’s popularity and American self-satisfaction have not risen together because of any general improvement in the standard of living: the rich are richer than they were a decade ago, the poor are poorer, and the average American stands about the same. It is not prosperity that accounts for the return of American happiness, but rather the terms on which the inhabitants of the United States connect their private lives to their sense of national well-being.

Ronbo

Michael Rogin, 13 October 1988

Ronald Reagan’s autobiography, Where’s the rest of me?, repeated the question the actor had asked in the movie King’s Row, when he woke up in a hospital bed to discover that his legs had been amputated. Reagan lost his legs in Hollywood, the autobiography explains, and recovered ‘the rest of me’ (that phrase is the leitmotif of his text) by fighting Communist influence there, acquiring personal and institutional backing, and marrying Nancy Davis. This reassemblage of the actor/politician made him whole – the cause he supported and the people who supported him constituting the rest of Ronald Reagan.’

Letter

Gun-Sucker

9 May 1996

The gun hanging from John Wayne’s statue at the Orange County International Airport is, as I originally wrote in my review of John Wayne: American (LRB, 9 May), ‘about at the mouth-level of passers-by’. Refusing to participate in what you perhaps saw as an innuendo of yellow journalism, you located the weapon instead ‘just below the eye-level’. John Wayne knew better....

Is there anything stranger than a pop star out of time? Before Elvis Presley, before Michael Jackson, there was Al Jolson – ‘the most popular entertainer of the first half of the 20th...

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That’s America

Stephen Greenblatt, 29 September 1988

The 15th-century classic of paranoid witch-hunting, Kramer and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum, provides a convenient gloss on the word ‘glamour’. Witches, the Dominican...

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