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Even though it’s often suggested that book fairs have been going through a slow period in recent years, the heartland of New York remains a hotbed for bookish activities and a number of fairs remain viable throughout the state. Besides the Greenwich Village book fair and fairs sponsored by the ABAA, AAB Productions, and Mancuso - all in New York City - the Long Island Book Fair, Rochester Book Fair, Westchester, Albany and Cooperstown, make for a crowded dance card for all but the most jaded of booklovers.
Cooperstown was the place to be on Saturday, June 26th, and although a little cooler than normal for late June, it was ideal weather for a book fair with visitors lining up early and continuing to arrive throughout the day. A lot of new faces and familiar ones as well, including the amusing eccentric who shows up every year and has managed to become well known hereabouts for his persistent refusal to pay the modest $3.00 admission charge.
The added attraction this year was the presence of Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador who were on hand to autograph copies of Book Row, their recently published anecdotal and pictorial history of the antiquarian book trade once centered along New York’s Fourth Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood.
It was almost a book signing that didn’t happen because the Cooperstown bookseller who had ordered copies for the event was told by Publisher’s Group West (the distributor) that the title was already out-of-print - a nearly embarrassing situation since the book signing had already been fairly well publicized. As it turned out, even though the first edition had been sold out (unusual for a book of this type), a second printing was in the works and copies were promised and actually delivered in time for the Fair. From what I understand all but a few were sold before the end of the afternoon.
The celebration continued on through the evening as several booksellers, local book club members and friends of this magazine gathered in Cazenovia for a party honoring Marvin and Roy for their collaborative work, while also noting Marvin’s recent retirement from the Strand and his slightly premature (by 5 days) birthday anniversary - the last a barely kept surprise. For a lot of us it was a get-together to remember for a while.
We also find ourselves at the start of the political party season - not so convivial and usually downright uncivil. The presidential election run-up has been with us far too long and in recent years it seems to have taken up at least half of every four-year election cycle, with the final six months being the most intense.
One observation confirmed by reading McCullough’s John Adams and more recently Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation (New York, Knopf, 2000), is that slander, libel, and calumny have been an important part of the American political tradition since the very beginning. After a brief period of non-partisan cooperation during the early part of Washington’s first term, American public opinion soon split over issues of national assumption of state debts, the Jay Treaty, Shay’s Rebellion, etc., and later on during Adam’s administration, whether or not to declare war on France.
Shortly after becoming President and having naively included nascent political opponents in his administration, Adams found himself the target of both Hamiltonian Federalists and the emerging Jeffersonian Republicans. For Adams the ideology of what was right, just or fair for the country as a whole transcended ideology based on the interests of party or narrower constituency. The Jeffersonian camp thought that the Jay Treaty, endorsed by Washington and supported to some extent by Adams, gave away the store by signing on to trade agreements clearly favoring England. At that early stage America had little industry to protect and the Federalists thought it immediately more pressing to get England to follow through on its agreement to dismantle their military outposts on the American frontier.
From that point on party politics and the politics of personal destruction became nearly synonymous and although it seems as if it’s been going downhill ever since, James Callender (slanderer-for-hire) and Benjamin Franklin Bache of the Aurora set the standards for personal attack fairly early in the game.
Callender was a piece of work. Having achieved a modest reputation in his chosen profession for publicizing the story of Alexander Hamilton’s adulterous relationship with Maria Reynolds, he caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson who hired him to write a libelous tract attacking Adams.
In “The Prospect Before Us,” Callender delivered the goods, describing Adams as “a hoary headed incendiary” who was equally determined on war with France and on declaring himself president for life, with John Quincy lurking in the background as his successor. When confronted with the charge that, despite his position as vice president, he had paid Callender to write diatribes against the president, Jefferson claimed to know nothing about it. Callender subsequently published Jefferson’s incriminating letters, proving his complicity, and Jefferson seemed genuinely surprised at the revelation… (Ellis. Founding Brothers)
Some time later, while serving time in jail for a libel conviction, Callender heard rumors about Jefferson’s affair with one of his slaves (Sally Hemings), and he “subsequently published the story after deciding that Jefferson had failed to pay him adequately for his hatchet job on Adams.” (Ellis) The story turned out to be true, of course, but at the time Callender set the standard for attack-dog politics.
The articles and letters appearing in Bache’s Aurora were quite spirited in tone including the open letter from Tom Paine who “celebrated Washington’s departure, actually prayed for his imminent death, then predicted that ‘the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any’. ” Angry rebuttals soon appeared that referred to Paine as “that noted sot and infidel” whose attempt to smear Washington “resembled the futile efforts of a reptile infusing its venom into the Atlantic or ejecting its filthy saliva towards the Sun.”(Ellis) Another article in the Aurora charged, without basis, that British documents revealed that “Washington was secretly a traitor who had fully intended to sell out the American cause until Benedict Arnold beat him to the punch.”(Ellis) So it went and so it goes, right up to the present.
Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon
Going to the candidates debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Ev’ry way you look at it, you lose…
- (Simon & Garfunkel)
Lately I’ve been of the opinion that part of the problem on this side of the pond lies in our passive and mostly uncritical acceptance of the sanctity of the two party system. In many cases both Republicans and Democrats continue to sign on (behind the scenes) to the same flawed policies (especially in the area of foreign relations) that have caused this country so much difficulty and grief in recent years. Conversely, a lot of heat (and very little light) is concentrated on issues directed towards smaller constituencies in electorally critical parts of the country, with inflammatory rhetoric replacing rational debate in what passes for public policy discourse these days. At the same time political conventions have morphed into hugely expensive media extravaganzas that do very little to inform the electorate.
Discussion of policies which affect the well-being of the nation as a whole has, in many cases, degenerated into strident promotion of agendas appealing to individual or group self-interest - agendas frequently advocating using the power of the state to impose personal value systems on others. These raucous yet permissible areas of public debate include the perennial hot-button issue of a woman’s right to choose abortion; affirmative action; whether the words “under God” should remain in the pledge to the flag; the question of a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage; smoking of marijuana, tobacco or other leafy bits; the amount of fat permissible in a serving of Burger King’s French fries; and so on. Some of us with a libertarian bias tend to think government intrusion into these and other personal areas is unwarranted and usually downright silly. With personal choice, however, comes personal responsibility and accountability - lawyers who advertise on late night television please take note.
Both Democrats and Republicans are hopeless on most of these issues and for anyone wanting to explore an alternative I’d suggest taking a serious look at the Libertarians (www.lp.org), the Greens (www.greenparty.org) or the Reform Party (www.reformparty.org).
On the very real question of globalization or free trade versus protectionism (nowadays meaning protection of American jobs), most major party politicians have come down squarely on both sides of the issue at one time or another. To my mind, this remains a very legitimate area for informed public debate, as it always has been, but don’t expect much meat on the bones tossed out by either major party. Platitudes are the opiate of the electorate.
And in the very critical area of international relations, for more than 50 years both Republicans and Democrats, in nearly every administration and especially in both houses of Congress, have actually helped to create and nurture the fertile conditions in the Middle East that have only just begun to yield the bitter fruit which may as well be labeled “Grown in the USA.” George Ball, former Undersecretary of State in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, has written authoritatively and eloquently on the subject in The Passionate Attachment (New York, Norton, 1992).
We would very much like to see Michael Badnarik (Libertarian) and Ralph Nader (endorsed by many state committees of the Reform and Green parties) given more prominence in the current national debate but I don’t think that’s going to happen. And I don’t buy the argument that people should avoid supporting a better or more qualified third party candidate because by doing so they may be indirectly contributing to the election of an undesirable. The Republicans and Democrats may be the McDonalds and Burger King of American politics but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.
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