Thursday, August 11, 2011
August 11, 2011: Born This Day
On August 11th, 1833, Robert Ingersoll was born in upstate New York, the son of a prominent local Abolitionist preacher. Like many of the inspiring 19th century Americans about whom I’ve written here, Ingersoll certainly qualifies as a Renaissance American: a practicing lawyer for his whole adult life, Ingersoll also raised and commanded his own Union Army regiment (the 11th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry) which saw action at Shiloh, served as the Republican Attorney General of Illinois after the war, became one of the era’s most famous orators (his “Plumed Knight” speech, advocating for the 1876 presidential nomination of James Blaine, remains well-known today), and befriended Walt Whitman. But Ingersoll was perhaps best known, and is most inspiring to this AmericanStudier, as a vocal and eloquent defender of religious agnosticism (he came to be known as “The Great Agnostic”) in a period when such views (at least when made overt) usually spelled political disaster. As he often did, Whitman put Ingersoll’s inspiring qualities best (in an interview with journalist Horace Traubel): “He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light.”
On August 11th, 1921, Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York (not far from Ingersoll’s birthplace of Dresden), the son of an Alabama A&M professor of agriculture (in an era when African American college professors were still pretty rare). Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 and served not only throughout World War II but for the next twenty years, and only began writing professionally after his retirement at the end of the 1950s. That writing career can be divided into three distinct stages, with each both contributing significantly to our national narratives and in its own way controversial. He conducted the first interviews for Playboy in the early 1960s, and over the course of the decade interviewed such luminaries as Miles Davis (the first subject), Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali. A series of conversations with Malcolm X led to Haley’s first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which remains to this day both one of America’s most important texts and one of its most ambiguously authored ones (it was published after Malcolm’s assassination and has always been dogged by questions of how much was truly Malcolm’s voice and how much Haley’s authorly license). For the next decade Haley researched his family’s and American history, culminating in the publication of Roots (1976), which even before the groundbreaking TV miniseries represented one of the century’s most successful books. It too has been dogged by controversy, particularly about the authenticity and accuracy of Haley’s family details and discoveries; but even if the book’s stories were proven literally fictional, it would remain no less compelling and powerful as an autobiographical and historical novel of slavery and race in America.
On August 11th, 1933, Jerry Falwell was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, the son of a local businessman and bootlegger (and agnostic!). Although he founded and began serving as pastor of Lynchburg’s Thomas Road Baptist Church at the age of 22, it was really in the 1970s that Falwell helped originate and greatly influenced three of the most significant religious, political, and cultural shifts of late 20th century America: gradually turning that local church into one of the nation’s first mega-churches; founding Liberty University (in 1971), perhaps the first Christian institution of higher learning to gain national prominence (and certainly one at the forefront of the rise in Christian education as part of a pushback against multiculturalism); and founding the Moral Majority (in 1979), one of the organizations that most fully contributed to the shift in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian Americans’ perspectives and goals toward explicit political activism and power. There’s no question that many of the most significant American political developments of the last three decades were heavily influenced by Falwell and his cohort, from the election of Ronald Reagan to the many-faceted campaign to destroy Bill Clinton, and certainly to the presidency and policies of George W. Bush. It’s fair to say that Falwell might be best known, however, for controversies of his own: his unsuccessful lawsuits against Hustler magazine and Larry Flynt, his “outing” of the “gay” Teletubby Tinky Winky, his horrific post-9/11 attempts to blame the tragedy on gay and other culturally liberal Americans. Given how divisive and heated the cultural wars have become, thanks in no small measure to Falwell’s own efforts, it would be perfectly appropriate if heated controversies did indeed constitute his truest legacy.
On August 11th, 1948, Stephen Railton was born in Elgin, Illinois, the son of a World War II veteran and Popular Mechanics automotive journalist (about whom more here and here) and an equally impressive college-educated homemaker. Like Ingersoll, Steve Railton can give a great lecture (as generations of University of Virginia students will attest); like Haley, he can research and write a great book (see here and here); unlike Falwell, he’s a deeply accepting and progressive-in-the-best-sense thinker and person. And I wouldn’t be here, literally and in every other way, without him. Happy birthday, Dad! More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1) Online version of one of Ingersoll’s collections of lectures: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30208/30208-h/30208-h.htm
2) Info on the 30th anniversary edition of Roots: http://www.rootsthebook.com/
3) Falwell obituary and timeline from NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=10188427
4) OPEN: Any birthday wishes you want me to send along?