Excuse me madam, would you like to hear an American's opinions about everything?
John Steinbeck's Un americano en Nueva York y en Paris was published in 1957 by Ediciones Mariel, which was based in Buenos Aires. First published in 1956 in France as Un Américain à New York et à Paris, this is a collection of articles that Steinbeck wrote for Le Figaro when he was living in Paris. Because they originally appeared in French for a French publication many went unpublished in English for decades. In fact we can't be sure all the essays are available in English even today, though one would like to assume so. In any case, that's why this book caught our eye—because it surprised us that the entire collection of essays was available in Argentina, but not the U.S., almost immediately after they appeared in France.
Steinbeck was a serious writer, and thus was considered a serious persona, but the Le Figaro essays gave him a chance to show readers his wit and humor. Some of his observations read so contemporarily they could be from a year ago, particularly his musings over a restaurant owner who received a Michelin star, then spent every waking moment plotting, hoping, suffering to get another. He hopes to have his chance when the Michelin critic schedules another visit. The fact that the chef's official taster is Steinbeck's cat Apollo just adds more absurdity to the tale, as the genius who wrote Of Mice and Men veers into the silliness of cats and menus.
The parts of Un americano en Nueva York y en Paris not about France consist of articles concerning New York, culture, and politics. One of those latter entries, from 1954, is about Joseph McCarthy, who was in full witch hunt mode at the time. Much of the literati were loudly opposed to the proto-fascist senator, but Steinbeck took a different tack, writing that democracies occasionally need a challenge from demagogues in order to evolve, because such dark episodes remind people what democratic ideals really are—i.e. everyone gets to participate, not just self-appointed gatekeepers and purity-testers afraid of change or losing power. The tent of democracy always gets bigger, not smaller. It can't do the latter and qualify as a democracy.
The cover art on this was painted by J.C. Cotignola, whose work appeared on various Argentine and Brazilian publications, but who isn't well known today. Bang up job though. To us the title of the collection somewhat echoes George Orwell's acclaimed Down and Out in Paris and London, another book about knocking around in a couple of big cities. The difference is Orwell was so poor he almost starved to death—he literally ate moldy bread out of garbage cans to survive. Steinbeck was the toast of Paris when he was there. Given a choice, we'd skip the mold and go straight to the toast. Preferably with a layer of rillette de porc on top. Even Apollo the cat would approve of that.
He wasn't the first and he turned out not to be the last.
This issue of The National Police Gazette was published this month in 1954, with a cover asking whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was right or wrong. About what exactly? About whether the U.S. Army was infiltrated by communists. This Gazette appeared during the Army–McCarthy hearings, which were held from April to June of ’54, looking into accusations of corruption made against a McCarthy loyalist by high ranking members of the U.S. Army, and McCarthy's commie counter-accusations, as well as assertions by him that the Army's claims against his associate were politically motivated. You could mistreat and insult lots of groups in the United States back then and most people didn't greatly care, but as a politician you couldn't—and still can't—do it to the armed forces. McCarthy was a classic demagogue who trafficked in blame and demonization of entire groups of people, but he overstepped his bounds when he took on the Army. He came out of the hearings looking terrible, and his downfall was assured.
Police Gazette is solidly on McCarthy's side, though, which is no surprise if you know anything about the magazine. The basis of its support is that McCarthy was right that there were influential communists in America. At the time, only a brave few people seemed capable of asking why that was an issue at all.
Numerous western countries had fully functioning communist parties then, and for the most part they still do. Yet given a place in the arena of ideas, communists haven't gained much traction with the public. Possessing the right to elect communist politicians, the vast majority of people haven't voted for them, and in the case of the U.S. it's reasonable to assume they never will.
Yet McCarthy believed U.S. voters should not even be allowed to hear communist ideas. It may be stating the obvious in this day and age, but if traditional political offerings—from whatever end of the spectrum—can't win the debate against those of an upstart's, then it's because politics as usual are adjudged by the populace to be a failure. The obvious solution for mainstream parties is to have better policies, but often vested interests make that a practical impossibility.
McCarthy and the Gazette believed suppressing communist political thought was a sign of strength, but in reality it was a sign of weakness symptomatic of an irrational fear that their policies, if measured against those of communists, would fail to win the hearts of American voters. And this is perhaps why, while American demagogues such as him sometimes have their moment of support, history never judges their lack of faith kindly. The McCarthys of political life always pretend to be divinely guided, or driven by a greater purpose, or bestowed with an unshakeable public mandate—sometimes all three—but once the cruelty at the heart of their demagoguery becomes clear, their supporters quietly scurry for the exits.
In the end, demagogues go into the history books as, at best, national embarrassments, or at worst, scourges and human monsters. Americans don't much like presumptions to be made for or about them. Really nobody does, even presumptions for the supposed greater good. McCarthy presumed too much. Today his name has become an adjective signifying a type of opportunistic treachery, the place of honor in the American political pantheon he thought he was building for himself never came to be, and he died knowing people were glad he was going away. He won't be the last American demagogue this happens to. We have numerous scans below, and many more Gazettes in the website.
Collier’s goes looking for the commies but finds something else entirely.
Collier’s isn’t the most visually striking of magazines, but this issue that hit newsstands today in 1954 caught our eye because it contains several nice photos of Marilyn Monroe. There’s also a bit of interesting graphic art, specifically a colorful baseball illustration by Willard Mullin. The other item that attracted us was a story called “What Price Security?” about U.S. government overreach in its search for communists. No art to speak of, but the content gives a window onto the Red Scare period of American life. Author Charlotte Knight tells readers that government efforts against communism have been “so irresponsibly administered that it may have done more harm to the United States than to its enemies.” Sound familiar?
Knight slams witch hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and characterizes the fervor around alleged subversives in Washington, D.C. as creating a ripe environment for paranoiacs and liars to ruin innocent people. But of course, as well written as Knight’s article is, she should not have been surprised by anything she discovered. Witch hunts always become vehicles for revenge, personal advancement, and profiteering, because society and politics become warped in such a way as to clear a path for these pursuits. History invariably judges such periods as human tragedies and political failures, though sadly, too late for the ruined and the dead. Scans below.
Better dead than red.
Above: a rare poster for the Republic Pictures drama The Red Menace, which as you might guess was a cheeseball propaganda film designed to instill terror into Americans about communism’s plans for global domination. You get plenty of subterfuge here, along with lots of betrayals and a few brutal beatdowns, and one of the commies—Betty Lou Gerson—would later portray purest evil by voicing Cruella de Vil in Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Ironically, when The Red Menace premiered the U.S. government was entering into a period during which it would sponsor numerous anti-democratic coups in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. This was unknown to most Americans, but it’s debatable whether they would have been concerned. The years immediately following World War II marked a rising anti-communist wave in the U.S., a movement that would create fertile conditions for the political stardom of witch hunting senator Joseph McCarthy. He would flame out within a decade, but at the beginning of his crusade he had substantial public support. For its part, Republic Pictures was interested more in profit than propaganda, and Menace was rush-released to take advantage of the public mood. The haste showed—the movie was spectacularly, hilariously bad, and is considered today by many to be the Reefer Madness of anti-communist films. It premiered today in 1949.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1947—Edwin Land Unveils His New Camera
In New York City, scientist and inventor Edwin Land demonstrates the first instant camera, the Polaroid Land Camera, at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. The camera, which contains a special film that self-develops prints in a minute, goes on sale the next year to the public and is an immediate sensation.
1965—Malcolm X Is Assassinated
American minister and human rights activist Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City by members of the Nation of Islam, who shotgun him in the chest and then shoot him sixteen additional times with handguns. Though three men are eventually convicted of the killing, two have always maintained their innocence, and all have since been paroled.
1935—Caroline Mikkelsen Reaches Antarctica
Norwegian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen, accompanying her husband Captain Klarius Mikkelsen on a maritime expedition, makes landfall at Vestfold Hills and becomes the first woman to set foot in Antarctica. Today, a mountain overlooking the southern extremity of Prydz Bay is named for her.
1972—Walter Winchell Dies
American newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell, who invented the gossip column while working at the New York Evening Graphic, dies of cancer. In his heyday from 1930 to the 1950s, his newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, he was read by 50 million people a day, and his Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people.
1976—Gerald Ford Rescinds Executive Order 9066
U.S. President Gerald R. Ford signs Proclamation 4417, which belatedly rescinds Executive Order 9066. That Order, signed in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, established "War Relocation Camps" for Japanese-American citizens living in the U.S. Eventually, 120,000 are locked up without evidence, due process, or the possibility of appeal, for the duration of World War II.
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