Matt Purple, managing editor on Coolidge: An American Enigma, by Robert Sobel, 1998: Hidden in the mountains of Vermont is a small hamlet called Plymouth Notch, the birthplace of the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. My wife and I stopped there en route to Burlington on a vacation a couple weeks ago and, amidst a freak 97 degree heat wave, traipsed around his boyhood house and church. The tour guide made much of Cal’s farm-work routines and the peculiarities of the era, horse-drawn carriages and the like, but little was said about the policies of his presidency, his fiscally conservative budgeting and restrained foreign policy. The small onsite museum didn’t once mention that Coolidge was—Ben and Jerry’s intercede for us!—a Republican.
That raises a question: who was this strange sourpuss of a man, our quietest president and reportedly one of our wittiest, so often dismissed as a fool’s gold diversion in between the good and proper economic interventions of Wilson and FDR, whose portrait Ronald Reagan very deliberately restored to the White House? In his book Coolidge: An American Enigma, the historian Robert Sobel answers that he was Thomas Jefferson’s heir, not in impact or even necessarily policy, but in his Sphinx-like capacity to mystify even his admirers. This resulted from two determinations on his part: first, to never comment unless he needed to; second, to never exercise the powers of his office unless it was absolutely necessary, as in the Boston Police Strike of 1919 when as governor he intervened late and only after the city’s mayor essentially went rogue. That latter quality has confounded many historians, with their witless monomania for presidential actions rather than presidential restraint.
Sobel’s account is a modest defense of Coolidge. Cal, Sobel says, wasn’t the scowling libertarian miser that his reputation insists; more of a federalist who thought power should be exercised at the local level first. He also wasn’t a tool of big business, tending rather to take a mediating view of disputes between management and labor. His signal value was thrift; his ideal the New England farmer; his philosophy essentially the Protestant work ethic jerry-rigged for the Roaring Twenties. In conjunction with his respect for America’s pyramidal system of power, during his days as Massachusetts governor he was placed in the activist, progressive, pro-labor wing of the GOP, while during his presidency he did less and was thus tagged as a conservative. He is a fascinating figure, easy to caricature and difficult to characterize. I think once I’m through with Sobel I’m going to read his autobiography, written in his trademark sparse but elegant prose. And then maybe Amity Shlaes’ Coolidge.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Executive Editor, on Something Wicked This Way Comes, By Ray Bradbury, 1962: There came a time when horror ceased to be metaphor or allegory, when thrills and terror in the genre became just that—shock for the sake of shocking, scares for the sake of scaring. But back in the recesses of popular literature, say 60 years ago, Ray Bradbury was one of the last great popular writers embracing the palette of science fiction and the supernatural in order to finger the fine tapestry of men’s souls. We forget that in these two genres—often superficially mistaken as the stuff of pulp fiction or dime store paperbacks—dwell a pantheon of our greatest novelists and poets: Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, and George Orwell among them.
Drawing the title Something Wicked This Way Comes from another spiritual mentor, William Shakespeare (Macbeth), Bradbury awes in this sometimes brutal, always honest introspection of seemingly ordinary (and fundamentally good) men as they are tested in a supernatural battle against evil. His protagonists wrestle with the temptations and regrets predominating their biological ages—boys on the threshold of manhood, men in later middle age. The very limits of their existential bonds—two friends born moments apart, a father and son—are stressed, doubted, inverted and finally, resolved anew.
The true appeal of Bradbury comes from his uncanny ability to weave a tale in which the reader soon forgets where they are at that very moment, and the author’s own vanity never intrudes. In Something Wicked he places our characters in a small town about to be visited upon by an ancient villain in the guise of an ordinary traveling carnival. Only those with restless cravings and minds are affected by the sound of the calliope as the demonic black train thunders into the fields at 3 a.m., sounding like “a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse…the outgone shreds of breath, the protests of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, burst over the earth!”
As people begin to disappear and the boys spy the machinery behind the diabolical curtain of cotton candy and a thousand-mirror maze, it is up to father Charles Halloway, a humble man of intelligence who doubts in his own worth, to outwit the devil. His own insomniatic ruminations about aging and his soon to be 14-year-old son make for the most aching prose in book:
“His wife smiled in her sleep. Why? She’s immortal. She has a son. Your son too! But what father ever believes it. What man, like woman, lays down in darkness and gets up with child? …Oh what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it….How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives that know they will live forever. So what do we do? We men turn terribly mean, because we can’t hold onto the world or ourselves or anything. So since we cannot shape time where does that leave men? Sleepless, staring.”
He soon finds that what he was looking for, in essence what he had thought lost, was in front of him all along. And he does this just as his son Will and his best friend Jim need him the most, as they confront the menagerie of doomed circus freaks led by Mr. Dark. The ringleader, also known as The Illustrated Man, represents the “Autumn people” who “sift the human storm for souls, eat flesh of reason, fill tombs with sinners. They frenzy forth.”
Putting a fresh spin on the Faustian bargain, Halloway explains the millennia of Mr. Dark’s designs: “Those creatures want the flaming gas off souls who can’t sleep nights, that fever by day from old crimes. A dead soul is no kindling. But a live and raving soul, crisped with self-damnation, oh that’s a pretty snoutful for such as them…God only knows but the freakmasters perceive Itches and come crab-clustering to Scratch.”
Bradbury implies these heady implications of Natural Law and the dark shadows haunting the seasons of time against the backdrop of a truly creepy narrative, with a cast of bone-chilling monsters, like the Dust Witch and Mr. Electro and the dwarf-who-was-the-lightning rod salesman. The stuff that will keep you awake, but unlike Halloway’s tortured sleepless nights, in a good way.
As Bradbury notes, there is a carnival headed to every town, “living off the poison of our sins we do to each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets.” It’s a visceral conception that forces a stark question: are we Autumn people, Summer People, or a measure of both? And what will we do when it’s calliope calls?