What Would the Dulles Brothers Do?

.After decades of blessed obscurity, the Dulles brothers have splashed back into the news of late. There are big books, little books, forthcoming books: all leading to a flurry of newspaper and online articles (notably Alex Beam’s March 8 essay in the Wall Street Journal). 

Allen Welsh Dulles, John Foster Dulles

The two major volumes that have led the way are The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World (2013) by onetime New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer; and The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (2015) by David Talbot, currently head editor of Salon, the online magazine. As one might expect from a Salon editor, the second book is sensationalistic and of dubious merit as a history, although some parts are excellent indeed. The Prologue is particularly good, with its prose portrait of old Allen Dulles trudging the streets of Georgetown in 1965 with Harper’s editor Willie Morris, denouncing John F. Kennedy, and struggling to put his tangled thoughts in order as he justifies his role the Bay of Pigs fiasco—for an article that would never be published.

The earlier volume, by Kinzer, is a fairly straightforward history, although it too is highly biased against both Dulles brothers. Primarily it focuses upon their 1950s coups and attempted coups—in Guatemala and Iran, in Indochina, Indonesia, and Lebanon—and finds finds fault with them all, in their operation and in the geopolitical outlook that lay behind them. Kinzer is particularly hard on Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, with his dour Presbyterian demeanor and his muscular-Christianity insistence that Communism could never be merely contained, it must be rolled back.

Why exactly, after these many years, are we suddenly reading so much about John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State, 1953-59) and his brother Allen Welsh Dulles (CIA Director, 1953-61)? One partial answer is the perennial fascination with the JFK assassination, in which Allen Dulles was peripherally involved. If he had nothing to do with its planning, he was undeniably a key player in its cover-up. Shortly after the assassination, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the ex-CIA chief to the Warren Commission. Ostensibly this was to give the Commission some gravitas and intelligence expertise (most of the seven members were congressmen). The result of course was the “crazed lone gunman” theory of the Report of the Warren Commission, according to which one Lee Harvey Oswald managed to kill President John Kennedy and wound Governor John Connally with a single bullet. Commission findings looked dubious when first published in the mid-60s, and they have not improved with time. Hence the continuous production of JFK assassination books, with no end in sight. [1] 

But I see a much deeper subtext to this new interest in the Dulles brothers. There are clear similarities between their time and ours. We can find a parallel between their belief in the clear and present danger presented by Soviet Communism in the 1950s, and today’s nationalist-populist movements that decry alien invasion, Muslim immigration, and destruction of our traditional Western cultures.

The two books I’ve just described, by Kinzer and Talbot, are highly negative critiques of the Dulles brothers. They belittle their fears, mock their strategy, damn their achievements. Essentially they follow an expanded version of same neo-Communist line that one sees in the press whenever General Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile is mentioned. Salvador Allende, we read time and again, was a democratic socialist who was freely elected by the people of his country, and toppled by a U.S.-backed junta. That Allende was actually a Marxist dictator ruling by decree, and who had turned a prosperous South American country into a Soviet asset, never seems to figure into the equation.

Mockery of anti-Communism has been a persistent propaganda technique since the end of the Second World War. Some of its most popular clichés have embedded themselves in the popular idiom, to such a degree that even “right-wingers” habitually use them. McCarthyism, most notably. It implies something cruel, boorish, asinine: a “witch-hunt” for Communists, or something, under the bed. Joe McCarthy even gets blamed for the Hollywood Ten investigations and the Alger Hiss trials, which happened before he ever got to Senate. And the history of Red involvement in the “Civil Rights” movement is something most “conservative” spokesmen won’t even touch.

John Foster Dulles, first Time cover as Secretary of State

In popular culture the postwar worry over Communism comes down to us as something slightly ludicrous, an epidemic of chronic paranoia. Yet it was very sound, much as concern over unbridled nonwhite immigration is today. And then as now, the worst danger wasn’t something far away in Moscow, or Peking, or Pyongyang—or Riyadh or Islamabad—but the enemy among us, and their allies and enablers in the public eye and in the columns of the daily press. Then as now, their primary technique was to mock us, smear us, belittle our worries, and shout us down. There is no reasoning to be had with them, no roundtable negotiations among people of goodwill. The enemy at home can only be identified, fought, and overcome.

In many ways John Foster Dulles had it easier than we do. Fortified by a highly intellectual, deep Calvinist spirituality, he readily accepted the world as a battleground between Good and Evil. He knew the Evil Ones would never love him, so he didn’t seek their love, and wore an expression that was described as that of one who had “just met an unripe persimmon.” Seeking to understand the enemy, he delved into their strategy. It was uglier than he expected, but he studied hard and did not flinch. Here he is, just after the Second World War:

He began obsessively reading and rereading Problems of Leninism, a collection of Stalin’s essays and speeches. By one account he owned “six or more pencil-marked copies, and kept one in each of his work places.” To him it was a revelation: a chilling blueprint for world conquest, to be achieved by weakening rival powers and seizing control of emerging nationalist movements:

“The October Revolution has shaken imperialism not only in the centers of its domination, not only in its “metropolises.” It has also struck at the rear of imperialism, its periphery… Having sown the seeds of revolution both in the centers of imperialism and in its rear, having weakened the might of imperialism in the “metropolises,” and having shaken its domination in the colonies, the October Revolution has thereby put in jeopardy the very existence of world capitalism as a whole.” [2]

In the grand sweep of its design, Bolshevism reminded Foster Dulles of another fearsome creed that had once tried to sweep the world. As he explained it:

“In the tenth century after Christ, the so-called Christian world was challenged by alien faith. The tide of Islam flowed from Arabia and swept over much of Christendom. . . . This time the challenge is Soviet Communism.” [3]

“Manichaean” is how colleagues in the State Department and Whitehall tended to view this outlook. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden found Foster Dulles particularly tiresome and in early 1953 asked President-elect Eisenhower please not to make Dulles his new Secretary of State. The Brothers includes an amusing diary entry from some years earlier, when Foster visited him and undersecretary Sir Alexander Cadogan at lunch, and tried to lecture them on his theories of Christian imperatives for the postwar years. It did not go well. “Lunched with A. in his flat,” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “J. F. Dulles there. . . J.F.D. the wooliest type of useless pontificating American . . . Heaven help us!” [4]

“Containment” had been the official policy toward Communist expansion in Dean Acheson’s State Department during the latter Truman years, as the Red tide flowed over China, North Korea, and very nearly Greece and West Berlin. Foster Dulles was having none of this. With the assistance of brother Allen (now Director of Central Intelligence), he actively sought out weak, Red-susceptible rulers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, and replaced them with America-friendly governments. Regime change? Indeed it was, on a worldwide level. Sometimes destabilization and a coup were called for (Guatemala, Iran), sometimes support for a political party or candidate would do the trick (Italy, Germany, Lebanon). Occasionally the intervention went awry or was unmanageable (Burma, Indonesia, Viet-Nam), or a dictator refused to be bribed into America-friendliness (Egypt’s Nasser).

Then there was Cuba, of course, and the Bay of Pigs, two years after Foster Dulles’s death, and Allen Dulles’s crowning failure in his last year at the CIA. But Cuba failed only because everything went wrong, beginning with JFK’s refusal to provide air and ground support for an operation that had been planned before he took office. For JFK it was also horribly timed, inasmuch as he had just finished campaigning on a platform opposed to military adventuring. But as an objective, ousting Castro was both easily achievable and beyond moral challenge.

Moral judgment figures heavily in the David Talbot book, beginning with its innuendo about Allen Dulles’s complicity in the murder of JFK. (Was Allen Dulles actually complicit? Could such an assassination have been justifiable under certain circumstances? Both are good questions, but Talbot’s strident, lurid writing style is better suited to presenting thorny problems than trying to solve them.)  During the Second World War, Allen Dulles was OSS chief in Bern. Talbot goes off the deep end in recounting this time, actually referring to some of his actions as “treasonous.” Talbot’s main complaint is that Dulles arranged an early surrender of German troops in Austria and Italy toward the end of the war, by negotiating with SS General Karl Wolff.

Allen Dulles in 1953 Time cartoon cover by Boris Artzybasheff

Talbot is also deeply offended that Allen Dulles recruited German intelligence officer Reinhard Gehlen as a key CIA contact in the postwar years. Tabloid-style, Talbot calls Gehlen as a “Nazi,” although Gehlen wasn’t. Rather, he’d been an intelligence officer with the Wehrmacht—a very good one in fact, with extensive knowledge of and contacts within the Red Army. Gehlen’s network made him an essential asset for postwar American intelligence. It is true that British intelligence (MI-6) disapproved of Gehlen, but this disapproval was actually coming from Moscow. At that time, British intelligence was being run by Red spy Kim Philby. As for Gehlen himself, he remained loyal to the West (unlike some German assets) and was regarded as such an upstanding character that he eventually was inducted into the Knights of Malta.

Talbot’s not all bad. His taste for the sensational is brilliantly suited to his coverage of the ill-starred Arbenz family after the 1954 Guatemalan coup. After being evicted from the country (and subjected to a humiliating strip-search at the airport), Jacobo Arbenz takes his brood to Mexico, Switzerland, Paris, Prague, and then Moscow (where he officially enrolls in the Communist Party); followed by a stay in Uruguay (where he lives under the watchful eye of neighbor E. Howard Hunt), then the Cuba of Fidel Castro (who welcomes him but moves him to suburban obscurity). Arbenz’s beautiful daughter Arabella has a brief career as a model and film actress, then declines into drug abuse and murder-suicide in Colombia (1965). Jacobo too eventually commits suicide, it seems, in an overheated bathtub in Mexico (1972). Author Talbot makes the case that the CIA is to blame for all this misfortune, while noting that mental illness ran in the Arbenz family. This instability must have gone back much further than Jacobo Arbenz himself. His father had been a German Swiss who for some reason moved to Guatemala, where he married a local, became a drug addict, and then shot himself, leaving his family penniless. (One wonders what became of his father.)

In public life the Dulles brothers focused mainly on international concerns. But today, long after the collapse of Soviet Communism, the persistent enemy that Foster Dulles identified is right here at home, in our press, broadcasting media, politicians, and the “deep state” that the Dulleses inadvertently helped create. Whether or not Allen Dulles actually had a hand in the murder of President Kennedy (and my guess is that he didn’t arrange it, but may well have given it his blessing), if he were alive and in his prime today he would surely be full of intricate stratagems to fight our enemies, foreign and domestic.

And what solutions would an Allen Dulles offer us today? Would mere propaganda be enough, like his Operation Mockingbird scheme, in which the CIA arranged with dozens of press outlets (including Time, Life, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS) to publish helpful anti-Soviet intelligence? Or would more forceful, “executive” action be appropriate? What would he have done about the strange figure of Barry Soetoro, alias Obama, he of the murky history and dubious antecedents? Would Allen Dulles permit him to remain at large today, in Washington DC with his entourage, operating a shadow government that unremittingly seeks to destabilize the administration of our current President?

Juicy questions, worthy of the talents of a David Talbot. WWDD?


1. In contrast with the David Talbot work described here, most recent books touching on the role of the CIA in the Bay and Pigs and Kennedy assassination are basically “conspiracy” studies, with little discussion of Allen Dulles’s role or possible aims. To name a few, all published by The Future of Freedom Foundation: Regime Change: CIA & JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, by Jefferson Morley, 2016; The JFK Assassination, by Jacob Hornberger, 2015; JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated, by Douglas Horne, 2014.

2. Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers, 2013.

3. Kinzer, ibid.

4. Kinzer, ibid.

What Would the Dulles Brothers Do?

Your Publisher—Cmdr. Rockwell

Nearly fifty years after his assassination, the image of George Lincoln Rockwell (March 9, 1918 – August 25, 1967) is more iconic than ever. You can drop his amiable face into a Twitter avi or website header, and feel pretty certain that most of your audience will know who it is. At Amazon, publications by and about Rockwell run on for pages: new, used, rare first editions; hardbound, paperback, Kindle; memoirs, speeches, political tracts; cartoon pamphlets and dank satires.

Today Commander Rockwell is hitting levels of recognizability that shouldn’t even be possible. This was hardly foreseeable when he was killed in 1967, and the press treated him as a has-been, a prankster past his prime.

In his obits he got portrayed a kind of an ersatz-Nazi counterpart to Lenny Bruce, the Jewish “sick comic.”  Both Rockwell and Bruce had enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 60s, capturing headlines as masters of outrage and provocation. Then they stopped being edgy, funny, bad boys; and went on to ignominious deaths. Lenny Bruce OD’d on heroin in August 1966 while shooting up in a bathroom. A year later, Lincoln Rockwell took a sniper’s bullets while driving away from a strip-mall laundromat in Arlington.

Six months earlier (February 1967), Esquire had published a long Where-are-they-now? article on Rockwell, telling how sedate the Nazi provocateur had become over the years. It ran under the title “The Last Word (We Hope) on George Lincoln Rockwell.”[1]

But that was then. Nowadays, in the Age of the Meme, Rockwell’s appeal is easy to see. An ad man and commercial artist, he specialized in nugget-sized satirical takedowns (“The Diary of Ann Fink,” “Whiteman vs. Supercoon”) that remain lively and relevant today. Even his long-form works, e.g., the autobiographical This Time the World, are easy-breezy reads that waste little space dithering about political theory. No one ever mistakes Rockwell for another Alain de Benoist, let alone a Carl Schmitt; but as a gateway drug he’s the reddest pill of all.

Derogatory treatments of Rockwell often say he got into the Nazi thing after failing in everything else. No doubt this idea is encouraged by Rockwell’s own autobiography, with its endless litany of fiascos through the 1950s, as Rockwell attempted to spearhead “conservative” and “anti-communist” organizations in between duty tours as a naval officer. But notwithstanding his personal frustrations, Rockwell was really quite successful as both officer and entrepreneur. In 1955 he founded a high-circulation magazine aimed at service wives (U.S. LADY). He started it on a shoestring and soon sold his interest for quick cash, but the magazine itself thrived for a dozen years more.

Following U.S. LADY, publishing executive Rockwell landed a position as assistant publisher with The American Mercury, then owned by munitions tycoon J. Russell Maguire. When he got annoyed with Maguire in 1957, Rockwell left his employ and moved on to a brief association with William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.

What all these magazines had in common, superficially at least, was a patriotic “conservatism.” But only U.S. LADY was under Rockwell’s complete control, for the issues of September-December 1955. The content is deceptively anodyne, and little attention has been paid to it. But if you poke around, Rockwell’s political message is both clear and nuanced. From the start he intended U.S. LADY to be a propaganda tool against cultural marxism:

…I realized that such a magazine could have a powerful political effect. I had carefully observed the technique of sly propaganda—always in the form of entertainment and information—in all the Jew-dominated papers, magazines, books, etc. and I believed that I could reverse the process with my magazine for servicemen’s wives. I would have to be very subtle, of course, but I could as months went by, begin to drive out the filthy ideas of Marxism, mobocracy and racial defilement and replace them with ideas of republican government and racial self-respect. [2]

Rockwell didn’t see that plan through to fruition, but there’s enough in his early issues to spot a trend.

The first thing a latter-day reader might notice about the editorial and advertising content of U.S. Lady is that it is very very white. This was not too unusual for the time, when a strict color bar prevailed in magazine publishing. But what is striking is that nearly all the photographs depict young, very good-looking women, men and children. Commander Rockwell himself appears in a couple of pictures with his Icelandic wife, Thora, and their two blond children.

A monthly feature, “U.S. LADY-of-the-Month,” was used to showcase an exemplary service wife from an exemplary service family. The inaugural winner, a contributing writer named Nadine Crawford, was momentarily embarrassed at receiving her $100 prize from the cash-strapped magazine, so she and Rockwell made an pictorial joke of handing the check back to the publisher in exchange for 20 shares of stock.

Another monthly offering, “U.S. Young LADY,” was a kind of service-brat version of the “Tips for Teens” social-etiquette pages one would see in issues of Seventeen or American Girl. Reading between the lines, one gathers that girls from service families need to guard against acting all sophisto and snobby.

You are a service teen. You’ve traveled to all these interesting places, and a boy might think you are a bright and distinctive personality to date. But dis-courtesy can conjure him into concluding a service teens are self-centered and noisy. Football dates with this dream guy may be the beginning of a long year of games, frat parties, movie dates, and more. Or, they may be the beginning and end of a short-lived, ill-mannered romance.

It’s autumn, and football season, and your job, girls, is to make sure you know a bit about football. But not too much!

“If there’s anything I hate,” one boy declared, “it’s the girl who knows more than I do about a man’s sport.”

Homemaking is a recurrent subject, and one in which U.S. LADY takes a very practical, carefree attitude. The realities of young service families’ lives are buttressed with a confident, upbeat attitude. Above-mentioned Nadine Crawford confesses she’s a slob and that her dining-table is a mess, serving as her writing-desk and the workbench for all the kids’ homework and hobbies. Her family always eats in the kitchen anyway.

Jane Hevner, U.S. LADY-of-the-Month for November 1955, reports that living in a trailer is really neat:

[She] makes her home in a 41-foot trailer set in a 30 by 60 foot well-kept lawn a few hundred yards from the landing strip at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington DC. . . .

What is is like to keep house in a trailer? According to Jane, it is the only way for service families to live. They love it. “Both of our children were born to trailer life. We bought the first one—a 25-foot job soon after we were married—in 1947. . .”

The Hevner trailer is spic and span. . . The walls and ceilings are pine-paneled, and Jane cleans and waxes them once every three months. The inlaid linoleum floors must be scrubbed and waxed once a week. One of Jane’s fondest hopes is that eventually they’ll have wall-to-wall carpets for the living room and the bedrooms…

This rough-and-ready attitude to home dynamics is part-pioneer and part-bohemian, and  runs diametrically opposite to the Madison Avenue ideal of 1950s nuclear-family life. And coincidentally or not, carefree housekeeping and trailer living were very much the style of the Rockwell family in the 1950s.

Rockwell’s politics are most detectable in the articles on overseas postings and conferences. For the December 1955 issue, Suzanne Shea, the wife of a Pentagon colonel, writes “Froeliche Weinachten,” recalling in loving detail the Christmas customs she saw when stationed in Germany a few years before. We get descriptions of parties and decorations, and lip-smacking memories of christollen, mohnkuchen, marzipan and other Yuletide treats. But never a single word about our having fought a war with the Germans a few years before. Not even a mention of why Mrs. Shea’s army-officer husband was stationed there in the first place. 

In fact, there is no mention at all of “Nazis” or the Second World War in U.S. LADY. The closest we get is a story about a recent American women’s conference (“Yankee Gals in Europe”) held at Berchtesgaden, helpfully described here as the former site of Hitler’s “stronghold.”

The soaring Bavarian Alps provided an appropriate setting for the recent 16th bi-annual Conference of American Women’s Activities in Europe. Nearly six hundred delegates assembled in Berchtesgaden, Germany, the site of Hitler’s former stronghold. Representing the enthusiasms of thousands of American women in the European Command, these leaders united in a sincere effort to achieve mutual goals…

Mrs. Foster L. Furphy, chairman of the conference, encouraged the delegates to “help other people realize they have a real purpose in Europe in projecting the best of the American way of life.”

Whatever became of this redoubtable matron, Mrs. Foster Furphy, we may assume that her notion of “the best of the American way of life” was very much in sync with Commander Rockwell’s ideas; and not at all what passes for the “American way” today.


1. Esquire, February 1967. Article by Fred C. Shapiro.

2. Rockwell, This Time the World.

Your Publisher—Cmdr. Rockwell

Cashing in on Emmett Till

Emmett Till was killed more than sixty years ago, but he’s a hotter property than ever. Scarcely a year goes by without yet another book or documentary recounting the tale of the hefty black youth from Chicago who got beaten and shot in Mississippi in 1955, for the mild transgression of “whistling at”—and physically molesting—a young white woman in a country store. According to Variety and the New York Times, there are now two feature films in the works, one of them produced by Whoopi Goldberg. We can also look forward to a six-part HBO series on the Till story, brought to us by the eminent Jay-Z and Will Smith.

The Face of Emmett Till
The Face of Emmett Till

And books, always more books. Black writer John Edgar Wideman recently published a long meditation about Emmett’s father Louis Till, a soldier who was hanged by the U.S. Army in Italy in 1945 for raping two women and murdering a third (Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File). Louis Till is more than an historical footnote. When his execution was first revealed in 1955, just before the trial of his son’s killers, it provided a useful backstop to the press hysteria over Emmett’s lynching, and may have helped their acquittal. And Louis Till’s prison neighbor, incarcerated like him in the outdoor cages of Pisa, was none other than American Fascist poet Ezra Pound, who memorialized Louis in his Pisan Cantos.

Also new is The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson, a book the New York Times describes as “an account of absorbing and sometimes horrific detail.” This has received a lot of ink in recent weeks, partly because it’s supposed to bring astonishing revelations about the Till story. To wit, the woman in the case, Carolyn Bryant Dunham (now 82) says that Emmett Till did not in fact grab her around the waist when he took her arm and made a sexual advance at her in that country store, as she originally claimed to the defense lawyers for her husband and brother-in-law. Nor did Emmett Till use a dirty word when he told her he’d had sexual experience with white girls. But whether or not these retractions are true, they are immaterial. Young Carolyn never gave testimony in court, so the jury never heard her story before acquitting the defendants of Till’s murder in September 1955.

But Tyson’s book tries to be something more than a new recounting of an old tale. It goes for topical relevance, comparing the Till murder to the killings of Trayon Martin and Michael Brown, and the Black Lives Matters “protests,” and warns that a new age of racial oppression is lurking on our doorstep. A new review in the Atlantic spells out this histrionic message:

[I]t could happen here again. After all, it wasn’t too long ago in American history that millions of Americans were trampled under the heel of a repressive, anti-democratic kleptocracy and faced economic reprisals, violence, or death for any dissent. . . In firmly tying Till’s legacy to protests over black bodies, re-segregation, voting-rights struggles, hate crimes, and the creeping reemergence of bigotry today, Tyson implores readers to learn that American tyranny already has a face, has already left millions of victims in its wake, and doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to fathom.

Tyson is over-reaching, of course, but that is understandable. There’s very little new to say about the Till case. For all the books and documentaries, the tale of Emmett Till remains today pretty much where it was sixty-plus years ago, when it was first covered by reporters, including such up-and-comers as David Halberstram and Hodding Carter. The most thorough investigation of the case was a January 1956 Look magazine cover story by former American Mercury editor William Bradford Huie, who paid Till’s killers $3000 to admit their crime and recount it in detail.

So here are the basic outlines of the story, then and now. Fourteen-year-old Emmett “Bobo” Till was a large, beefy negro youth (5’6″, perhaps 180 lbs.) from Chicago, sent to Mississippi to spend the summer with his relatives in the Delta region in 1955. Worried about the safety of this rambunctious youngster, his mother warned him to behave himself in front of white people down there, as they weren’t quite as tolerant as the white folks in Chicago. Boastful Bobo lorded it over his overall-clad country cousins, and bragged of his sexual exploits. He even claimed to have a white girlfriend back home. On a dare, he went up to the young proprietress of a country store, Carolyn Bryant, and asked her for “a date”— more or less.

Bobo’s relatives knew there would trouble, and trouble soon came, in the form of the woman’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam, who turned up a few nights later in a pickup truck with some negro hands riding in back. They dragged Bobo out of bed, drove him away, and then pistol-whipped him with an army .45. In the end they shot him in the head and threw the body into the Tallahatchie River after tying the old fan of a cotton gin around his neck. The body was found a few days later by a boy fishing. Bryant and Milam were soon arrested, and details of the kidnapping-murder began to emerge.

Within a few days, the Emmett Till murder became national and international news, denounced by the New York Times, the Daily Worker, the leftist German press, and even the Vatican’s Osservatore Romano. The grotesquely mangled face of Bobo’s corpse was featured on the cover of Jet, the pocket-sized negro magazine. The Communist Party in Illinois made a crusade of the Till case, insisting on Federal prosecution of the killers (on kidnapping charges, as there was no Federal anti-lynching law) and then demanding that President Eisenhower fire the Attorney General for not following through. Even Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was brought into the mix, denouncing the Mississippi murder with such vehemence that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover felt obliged to point out that while Daley was responding to Communist pressure, the mayor was not a Communist himself. [1]

In most press accounts, the Till story was reduced to the simplistic version we still get today: a young 14-year-old negro boy in Mississippi was tortured and murdered because he went into a store to buy bubblegum, and whistled at a white woman. Sometimes even that “wolf-whistle” is excused, with his mother’s bizarre explanation that Bobo stuttered, and would occasionally whistle if he couldn’t get a word out.

The crime was so lurid, the press stampede so intense, that conviction of the murderers looked likely. But now the case took an unexpected turn. Acting on a request from the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, Senators John Stennis and James Eastland of Mississippi investigated the death of Bobo’s father, whom Life magazine had just described as a war hero who had died while serving in Europe. Service records told a different tale. Louis Till had died with a rope around his neck, hanged by the Army for two rapes and a murder.

Sen. Eastland gave this information to the press, where it was promptly denounced in some quarters as both improperly obtained and irrelevant to Bobo’s murder. But the implication was clear: Emmett Till’s father had been hanged for murder and rape, and the son had likely been following in his footsteps. Additional investigation showed that before joining the army Louis had been a wife-beater, and the couple were separated at the time of his death. These revelations not only dampened press enthusiasm for the Till murder case, they seemed to justify Eastland’s insistence that segregation in the South was both proper and necessary.

Media interest in the Till case has never faded, for obvious reasons. It’s a thrilling, gory story. For many people, it’s an object lesson in the backwardness and cruelty of the Jim Crow South. Bobo’s death helped fuel the anti-Southern, anti-segregationist frenzy that was then just gathering steam. Like the fictional rape case depicted in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird a few years later, it was taken to be emblematic of the whole Deep South way of life, with the added benefit that the grisly Till murder actually happened. Other race-related killings in the South have been the subject of multiple books and movies (e.g. that of Medgar Evers, the subject of Mississippi Burning), but they are mainly from the 1960s and are in the nature of guerrilla reprisals against civil-rights activists. With Emmett Till, we get something different, an apparently innocent victim. In the popular telling, Bobo was no more than a brash black boy from up north who wasn’t used to playing the docile darky, and paid the ultimate price.

Almost innocent, but not quite, of course. Bobo Till had one admirable quality, an unrelenting physical courage that he took to his death. While pistol-whipping him, his killers tried to get him to recant his claims that he’d “been with white girls” and was “good as a white man”—but Bobo held tough till the end. Otherwise, the closer you study him, the more repellent he gets. He was an overgrown braggart and sexual predator. With his broad build and height he loomed over the tiny, bird-like Carolyn Bryant. When he spoke to her in the store and grabbed her hand, she was terrified. As soon as she was free, she ran out to her car to get a gun. It was at this point that Bobo gave a lewd “wolf-whistle” after her (the famous whistle that in popular accounts was his only offense). [2]

Most treatments of the case overlook those menacing aspects and implied rape threat, and prefer instead to talk about Bobo’s age, his race, the whistle, and the hideous condition of his corpse. Here one might detect a parallel between press coverage of Till case and that of today’s immigration crisis in America and Europe. In both situations there is a real, demonstrable threat of rape and violence by nonwhite outsiders, a threat that is mocked and denied by the rape-apologists of the leftist press. If we point out that modern-day Emmett Tills, or Muslims, or Mexicans, are potential rapists, we get called racists. If we bring up the crimes these people have committed, and are liable to commit again, we are dismissed as liars and fantasists who get excited over nothing more dangerous than a wolf-whistle.


1. Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta. JHU Press: 1991.

2. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/PROJECTS/FTRIALS/till/tillaccount.html

Cashing in on Emmett Till

Metapolitics of Swift and Trump

swift-trumpFuture historians will be endlessly fascinated by the intertwined media phenomena of Taylor Swift and Donald Trump during 2015-2016. The parallels and symbiosis of the two have been noted by many, particularly in the precincts of Twitter and the Alt Right, although no one’s ever studied the thing in depth.

A couple of weeks back the online Haaretz led off with a “glossary of the alt-right.” All in all, an impressively balanced and informed compendium. And right there in the header graphic you had Taylor Swift, Steve Bannon, and Pepe the Frog as leading icons of what Haaretz deigns to call the “Trumpist Alt-right” [sic].

But alas, the glossary’s author didn’t care to dig into subtextual ties between Taylor and Trumpistry, preferring instead to fall back upon the shallow explanation that Alt Righters admire Tay Tay for her “Aryan appearance.”

As seen in Haaretz
As seen in Haaretz

This just won’t do. The similarities between the pair, arguably the two most recognizable celebrities of the current epoch, are legion. They begin with a fierce self-creation, both in career success and self-presentation: each with a tightly crafted visual persona—simple, iconic, and ever-so-slightly eccentric.

We can move on from that to their insistence on following personal, quirky, seemingly counter-intuitive ideas that nobody else liked. What could be more obscure and potentially disastrous than naming your pop-music album and world tour “1989,” simply because that was the year you were born? What could be more outlandish than the idea of Donald Trump running for President? Surely that is the self-indulgent pipe-dream of an aging tycoon who’s willing to part with his money and will drop out before he gets to New Hampshire?

And of course the mad ideas worked.

Taylor Swift came down from her sell-out 1989 World Tour a year ago. Her audiences exceeded 100,000 if the venue was big enough. For 2016 she is the world’s highest-earning “artist” ($170 million). She enjoyed levels of media saturation hitherto unknown even to pop entertainers, unless you want to go back to the Beatles in 1964. It’s a sustained exposure that has been surpassed these past 18 months only by one Donald J. Trump.

With her colossal crowds, instant recognizability, meme-ability, and fan-devotion, Taylor was a metapolitical advance-act for Donald Trump, softening up the public for Trumpamerica by reminding people that there is an alternative to degeneracy and civil strife. And that alternative is not a hopeless, mawkish nostalgia, as the lefty press likes to carp, but a real, achievable goal, one that Donald Trump was both praised and mocked for articulating in simple words. Make America Great Again? It means a corrective rebuilding of a society that has crumbled and slipped away from us in just the last few decades.

A Land Safe for Heroes

For most of Taylor Swift’s career her songs and performances have been an evocation of an ur-wholesome America. A high-trust place where people don’t lock their front doors, and where nonwhites are even rarer than at Trump rallies. A Norman Rockwell-ish land where there are few disasters or tragedies bigger than an unrequited adolescent crush. Even after Taylor bought a vast loft in Manhattan in 2014, and led off her new album with a techno-beat paean to the Freedom and Diversity of the city (“Welcome to New York”), she seemed to be singing about the manicured and malled-over Safest City in America, where “racial minorities” could connote nothing more threatening than gay black chorus boys. The New York of Donald Trump and Taylor Swift, in other words; not the endless slum of The French Connection (1971).

Still largely a fantasy, perhaps, but you don’t have stroll for long in Midtown these days to see that the sidewalks are clogged with tourists photographing themselves at Trump Tower. When was the last time tourists visited Manhattan mainly to see a skyscraper? And they don’t ask you if these streets are safe at night, or if they’ll get mugged going into Central Park. It feels secure. This is the land of Trump and Taylor.

Everything Has Changed
Everything Has Changed

This idealized, non-threatening America is well depicted in Taylor’s 2013 song/video collaboration with the English-Irish singer Ed Sheeran, Everything Has Changed, from the Red album A memory of unfulfilled childhood romance, set in and around an elementary school in some bucolic exurbia. The singing duo are depicted in flashback by grade-school lookalikes, and most of the other pupils are likewise towheads and gingers. Significantly this isn’t set in some long-ago past—Sheeran and Swift would after all have been those little kids around 1999. This is the near-present. Subtext: guilelessness and wholesomeness are neither distant nor irretrievable.

Race and culture became an overt issue in Taylor videos in only the last couple of years, via the brilliant work of her best-known director, “Joseph Kahn.” Kahn is his Hollywood name; he’s actually a Korean-American called Ahn Jun-hee. He jokes darkly that Koreans are now an endangered species “like pandas” because they have the world’s lowest fertility.

Maybe that existential worry is just sheer coincidence, but it was with Kahn that Taylor videos got attacked for their implicit “racism.” Wildest Dreams from 2015 got called an “African Colonial Fantasy” by The Guardian, because it dared to conjure up a posh white life, circa 1950, on the plains of Kenya—a Kenya that has lots of giraffes but somehow no black people. 2014’s Shake It Off was said to “perpetuate racist stereotypes” because it featured a chorus line of colored girls energetically twerking in ghetto earrings and denim cutoffs.

taylor-do-not-compareGoddess and God-Emperor

As with Donald Trump, sniping against the Swift enterprise passed very quickly from innuendo to outright accusation during 2015-16. In both cases this was speeded along by their legions of alt-right and white-nationalist Twitter fans, who found that two most recognizable faces in the world were supremely adaptable to any number of visual “memes.”

Most of these images were so broad and silly it was near-impossible to mistake them as anything other than gags. For example, the endless series of pictures with “motivational” quotations attributed to Taylor Swift but actually from Adolf Hitler. Similarly with the manic, fun-loving embrace of Andrew Anglin’s Daily Stormer (“Aryan Goddess Taylor Swift—Nazi Avatar of the White European People“). This looked just like something out of the 1970s National Lampoon, and did Taylor no more harm than the factitious froth endlessly concocted by Bonnie Fuller’s Hollywood Life, or Camille Paglia’s denunciation of her a year ago as a “Nazi Barbie.”

No one took the “Aryan Goddess” trope seriously. For all but the most deluded paranoids, hearing the thump of jackboots behind the lyrics of “Blank Space” was just too much of a stretch. This was true even after Breitbart News ran a lighthearted piece in May 2016 (largely cribbed from two Counter-Currents articles) about Taylor Swift’s mystique among the Alt Right. And it continued to be true even after the Breitbart article was further sliced, diced, and echoed through Slate, Vice, the NY Daily News, and even the Washington Post. Her lawyer did eventually write a cease-and-desist letter or two to those pushing the Taylor-Hitler memes, and Taylor eventually changed her public profile just a little bit. Mainly, she lowered it and said almost nothing about any media stir, while the showbiz press struggled to make news out of her breakup with one boyfriend, her new liaison with another, and some indecipherable feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Through summer and fall came the headlines:

Taylor Swift Hiding — Her Plans To Stay Out Of Spotlight. (Hollywood Life)

Taylor Swift Comes Out Of Hiding (i.e., she sings at a birthday party). (MTV)

What Is Taylor Swift Hiding? (Jezebel)

Washington Post‘s “Taylor Comes Out of Hiding” story arrived last week (December 9, 2016) and speculated idly on why she suddenly released her first song in many months, noting that it was a contribution for a soundtrack to a very kinky sequel to the film Fifty Shades of Grey:

[W]hy did the calculatedly prim star decide to contribute to a movie based on a best-selling erotica series that delves into the finer points of sadomasochism? 

Even for WaPo, this was a particularly insipid attempt at sensationalism, hardly even worth calling Fake News. It appears Taylor contributed a song because she was asked to, and because collaborator Zayn Malik happens to be the boyfriend of Taylor’s comrade, the half-Dutch, half-Palestinian model Gigi Hadid.

Anyway, the “Aryan Goddess” controversy now appears to be dead (Haaretz graphic notwithstanding), buried under the sedimentary layers of unmemorable gossip.

Funny Meme
Funny Meme

Donald Trump did not fare so well. The paranoids looked at his support among the hard-right, and flew into the same kind of panic we saw last month when a few Roman salutes were thrown at the NPI conference. Except they were panicking every single day—for months—always finding some excuse to become newly unhinged.

The satire in Twitter memes completely threw them. The anti-Trump partisans couldn’t grasp that Donald Trump is a Very Funny Guy. Nor could they even figure out what Funny is. They tried creating their own anti-Trump memes (Google them!) but never got the hang of them. All they could think of was Donald Trump Racist. Donald Trump Orange Face. Donald Trump Funny Hair.

Sad Meme
Sad Meme

They got Alec Baldwin, a talented comic actor not unlike Trump in build, to spoof Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but the caricature lacked depth and wit. Donald Trump is simply a much funnier guy, defying broad parody.

As Trump would tweet: “Sad!”

Nor could the anti-Trumpians comprehend healthy self-mockery on the part of Trump enthusiasts who spoke of “The God Emperor” or “The Trumpenführer.” The anti-Trumpians heard, and may have literally believed, that these terrifying “Trumpkins” really truly believed Donald Trump was a God. An Emperor. (Who would be a Führer…and they think that’s a good thing!)

Five weeks after the election, the Alt Right and “racist” taint still colors the press coverage of Donald Trump. He’s President-Elect, and sensationalism from six or eight months ago is not about to get wiped away by showbiz gossip from hollywoodlife.com or US magazine. But there are some interesting parallels between Trump and Taylor’s press-management. Much to the dismay of fervent supporters, Donald Trump has been adding suspicious-looking power-brokers from Goldman Sachs to his administration’s upper tier. There’s Treasury Secretary appointee Steven Mnuchin, and National Economic Council director-appointee Gary Cohn. Obviously he’s putting them in there in order to discourage Wall Street from sinking the economy in the early months of a controversial administration. Still, Mnuchin and Cohn look like the kind of guys a Clinton or Obama would put in, so some Trump partisans, particularly Alt Right ones, are mighty disheartened. (Perhaps Mnuchin and Cohn will be gone in a year or so; first-year Treasury and economic appointees tend to have a short shelf-life.)

You can detect the same kind of thing going in the ephemeral news on Taylor Swift. In recent months she been collaborating with, and seen in the company of, a black rapper named Drake, and the aforementioned Mr. Malik, a half-Pakistani from Britain. Inevitably the press has made lip-smacking, prurient suggestions. USA Today asks: Are Drake and Taylor Swift Dating—or Just Trolling Us? It’s decidedly the latter, with the emphasis on trolling. Another unlikely story making the rounds is that Taylor’s next album would be hip-hop, or something with an “urban” (black) vibe. As in the case of the President-Elect Trump, many devotées are appalled that such things could even be joked about.

The Master Trollers

Both Donald Trump and Taylor Swift are proficient trolls. Or, to give it more gravitas, they are top-tier masters in the art of PR management and control of their personal image. They work the media, and they know social media. They know you can throw the press a dubious story, and the press will take the bait, and stop poking around about other things.

For weeks the President-Elect tamed the press rowdies by keeping them focused on a lead that any clearheaded person knew was a dead-end. That was the strange premise that Mitt Romney could truly, seriously become Secretary of State. Trump invited Romney to a long afternoon at his New Jersey golf club, had repeat meetings with him Trump Tower, got photographed at a yummy candlelight dinner at Jean-Georges. The media followed along. Then poof!—it all went away.

esquire-taylor-tweetTaylor Swift’s mastery was in evidence during her “hiding” period, when one of the persistent questions on clickbait sites was Whom Is Taylor Voting For? Often this came out as, Why Hasn’t She Endorsed Hillary? Once upon a time (2008) she did tell the world that she was casting her first vote for President for Barack Obama. But eight years later, with Hillary Clinton pre-anointed as Our First Woman President, Taylor was keeping mum. Meanwhile such celeb peers and rivals as Lena Dunham, Madonna, and Lady Gaga were angrily, aggressively promoting Hillary.

Did Taylor simply find this political talk improper for celebrities, as Mark Wahlberg did? Or could she possibly, like Marky-Mark, be leaning towards Trump, to whom she at least had a social connection? (Best friend Karlie Kloss has been going with Ivanka Trump’s brother-in-law for a long time.)

A snarky Esquire writer suggested that celebrities who were “remaining silent” (i.e., not declaring for Hillary) were secretly Trump supporters. He then called out Taylor in a rude tweet. 

When the election came, and Taylor still didn’t announce her choice, the media started to do tea-leaf readings on the subject. On November 8, USA Today actually ran a piece claiming she must have voted for Hillary because an Instagram photo of her (ostensibly in line outside her voting place) showed her wearing a black sleeveless sweater a bit like the black sleeveless sweaters that both Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham had been photographed in.

In the week after the election, some sites rationalized, on similarly notional evidence, that Taylor probably voted for Trump. This was too much for the Taylor-for-Hillary partisans at NYMag and Huffington Post. They promptly slammed the Taylor-for-Trump clickbaiters and accused them of spreading Fake News on behalf of the Alt Right!

Meanwhile, Taylor Swift still hasn’t told. And Mitt Romney will never be Secretary of State.

Metapolitics of Swift and Trump

Picture Post


Margot Darby on the Subway



margot darby
margot darby on the subway


margot darby
margot darby and company

margot darby

Mississippi State Flag. (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
COPYRIGHT EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS (Express Newspapers via AP Images)

Jane Austen “ad” by Michael O’Donoghue and George W. S. Trow. (®1971, 2007, National Lampoon)
Jane Austen at 15
MARGOT DARBY with CRISWELL on the subway
MARGOT DARBY with CRISWELL on the subway

margot darby

Picture Post

Time for Tolkien

David Engels 

Originally published in Le Vif/L’Express  [1] (Brussels)
Translated by Margot Metroland

aragorn-trump-levifWe are in an epoch in which numerous religious, ethnic, or sexual groups are risking community-implosion by trying to impose their own values on everyone else. A time in which a certain politician we shall not name has been pushing political correctness to the point where it’s now proposed we should teach history according to the ethnicity of students.[2] At the same time we’re witnessing a paradoxical return to the nostalgic comfort of the old-fashioned grand epic, marvelously exemplified in the current craze for  J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Tolkien world is deeply imbued with a hierarchy that is charismatic rather than technocratic. A place where earthly power, in the image of the Kingship of Aragorn, is depicted as a burden, while obeisance is an honor. Here the hero is deeply individualistic, though driven not by egotistical materialism but rather a moral humanism that forces him—Elendil, Bilbo, or Faramir—to remain faithful to his convictions even at the price of a rupture with society.

Herein lies Tolkienian conservatism, which understands that happiness and harmony cannot be guaranteed by external means such as technology or institutions, but only through the ethical behavior of the individual, who learns, as Eowyn or Sam do, to accept their innate nature rather than a disordered idea of artificial egalitarianism. At the same time, this universe is deeply religious: it was defiled by the original fall of Melkor [or Morgoth, the First Dark Lord], making all happiness transient, and any hope of an ideal earthly order illusory. The history of Middle Earth is fundamentally a tragedy, consisting of a series of heroic acts —by Beren,  Eärendil and Frodo—doomed to failure. Only divine grace permits one to achieve the ideal of completing his quest.

But this vision is not merely confined to literary imagining. It’s also accompanied by a critical reflection on modernity, which today would probably suffice to expel Tolkien from Oxford. Here he is in a letter of 1943, being ironical: “It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production throughout the Near East, the Middle East, the USSR . . .  how happy we shall be.” [3]  Even the long-awaited Allied victory leaves him skeptical: “The real war is not like the legendary war. If it had inspired or dictated the development of the legend, the Ring would certainly have been seized and used against Sauron.” (The Lord Of The Rings, 2nd ed., Foreword.)

What to say of the ulterior reasons beyond this renewed popularity of Tolkien at the beginning of the twenty-first century, other than that it conceals a deep dislike of our postmodern world and a longing for a grand epic about a simple, integral, ancestral society? An escapism, moreover, which is in the process of gradually transforming itself, as shown in the rise of charismatic, conservative movements for political restoration… When is the return of the king?


1. “C’est le moment de… (Re)Lire J.R.R. Tolkien.” Le Vif-L’Express, Brussels. 2 December 2016. Online: https://www.academia.edu/30198155/Cest_le_moment_de_…_relire_J.R.R._Tolkien_in_Le_Vif-Lexpress_1.12.2016_18

2. Deputée Catherine Moureaux. (Not named in original, but discussed here: http://www.causeur.fr/belgique-education-islam-histoire-molenbeek-41291.html )

3. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. 1981. London and New York: Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Time for Tolkien

Henry Williamson, George Orwell, and the Pigs

Henry Williamson, by Charles Tunnicliffe, 1935
Henry Williamson, by Charles Tunnicliffe, 1935

Today is the birthday of Henry Williamson (Dec. 1, 1895 – Aug. 13, 1977)—ruralist author, war historian, journalist, farmer, and visionary of British fascism.

Two rather incongruous points of Williamson’s life stand out. One is that he achieved fame with what is usually regarded as a children’s book, Tarka the Otter (originally published 1927, with a movie version in 1979).

The other is that he was a friend of Lawrence of Arabia; and that it was on his way back from posting a letter to Williamson that T.E. Lawrence was mysteriously killed in a motorcycle accident. This was 1935. The matter under discussion in the correspondence was a request by Williamson that Lawrence join Sir Oswald Mosley in a campaign for European peace. Reportedly, Lawrence agreed.

Williamson was a prolific, compulsive writer (over 50 books, including posthumous volumes). Sometimes he is described as an author whose fame was consigned to “the memory hole” on account of his fascist associations and enthusiasm for National Socialism.

But this is very misleading. Even as an old man in the 1960s, Williamson was called upon by one of his old papers, the Evening Standard, to revisit and recount the 1914-18 battlefields of the Western Front, and ten years later he was engaged to draft a scenario for a long-delayed film version of Tarka. When he died in 1977 he merited a 1700-word obit in The Times that described his great output and scarcely mentioned his “Fascist sympathies.”

Blackshirt sympathies are really a side-note with Williamson, as they are with Yeats, Belloc, and Wyndham Lewis. If he is largely forgotten today, this is not because he went to Nuremberg rallies (nobody forgets the Mitfords, after all), but rather because of the peculiar nature of his output. Apart from his war memoirs, most of his writing consists of highly detailed close observation, with little direct commentary on the world at large. (The newspaper column at the end of this article is a good example of Williamson’s work. Taken in large doses, such detail tends to become tedious.)

A good contrast with Williamson is the case of George Orwell, whose pose as “a man of the Left” was purely for literary viability in the 1930s. From his social attitudes and military bearing, to his patriotic pronouncements (England, Your England) and anti-Stalinism—even his funny mustache—Orwell was a most unlikely “man of the Left.” Yet that is how he styled himself. Orwell even shared with Williamson a fondness for nature-writing, though their differences in approach are striking, as I will come back to.

First, though, I want to say a few words about Williamson’s ruralist books and journalism. He wrote in a time when nature-writing was a popular genre, and a mainstay of daily newspapers, particularly in England, much as wine columns seem to be today. I guess these “countryman” columns in London papers functioned as “breathers,” giving tram and Underground riders a break from the usual Fleet Street headlines and Oxo adverts. And maybe editors and press-lords believed thought that throwing in a bit of farming, foxes and foliage would raise the overall tone of their newspapers.

The most famous example of these “countryman” columns is the one Evelyn Waugh made up for his satirical novel, Scoop (1938). In Scoop, a newspaper tycoon wants to hire a fashionable young novelist named Boot to cover a civil war in Africa. By mistake he gets the wrong Boot. Not society star John Courtney Boot, but his impoverished hick cousin, William.

Shy, befuddled William Boot lives in deepest Devon where he writes a column called “Lush Places,” for the vulgar London newspaper The Daily Beast. (The title has since been repurposed for an even more vulgar webzine).

We get only one snippet of this impenetrably rhapsodic column, “Lush Places,” but that leaves us gasping for no more: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”

Henry Williamson, you might say, was the real “Boot of The Beast” in Scoop. He was unworldly. He wrote “countryman” columns. He described, close-up, the behavior of the salmon and the otter, the “feather-footed vole” in the “plashy fen.” He lived out in Devon, later in north Norfolk, worked a countryman writer and farmer.

What a contrast with Orwell, who was not only a sort of war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War (for the Tribune, and in his memoir Homage to Catalonia) but made a special point of joining an eccentric faction, the POUM, that opposed Stalin but supported the Spanish Loyalists.

But Orwell’s mindset was not that far off from Williamson’s. They were near-contemporaries (Williamson: 1895-1977, Orwell:1903-1950), and Orwell too often wrote about nature and farming.

One of Orwell’s best known essays, “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” is a mystical-whimsical contemplation on toad-spawning as an annual rite of spring:

Frequently one comes upon shapeless masses of ten or twenty toads rolling over and over in the water, one clinging to another without distinction of sex. By degrees, however, they sort themselves out into couples, with the male duly sitting on the female’s back. You can now distinguish males from females, because the male is smaller, darker and sits on top, with his arms tightly clasped round the female’s neck. After a day or two the spawn is laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds and soon become invisible. A few more weeks, and the water is alive with masses of tiny tadpoles which rapidly grow larger, sprout hind-legs, then forelegs, then shed their tails: and finally, about the middle of the summer, the new generation of toads, smaller than one’s thumb-nail but perfect in every particular, crawl out of the water to begin the game anew.

I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. [2]

Orwell constantly fantasized about living in the countryside, and even talked of becoming a farmer someday. Around 1936 he got as far as living in North Hertfordshire country store beside an estate called Manor Farm—a name he borrowed some years later when he penned a fantasy about a farm where all the animals, led by smart pigs, take control and rename the place Animal Farm.

The romance of the country permeates his other fiction. In one novel after another, Orwell’s human characters rouse themselves, suddenly and unaccountably, to go tramping through meadows and hedgerows. In A Clergyman’s Daughter the title character gets amnesia and finds herself hop-picking in Kent. The superficially different stories in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying both have romantic episodes in which a couple go for long hikes through idyllic woods and fields, where they marvel and fornicate amongst the wonders of Mother Nature. The middle-aged narrator of Coming for Air spends much of the novel dreaming of fishing in the country ponds of his youth, but when he finally takes his rod and seeks down his old haunts, he finds that exurbia has encroached and his fishing-place is now being used as a latrine and rubbish-tip by a local encampment of beatnik nature-lovers.

For Orwell, fauna and flora are never just interesting specimens by themselves. They are always somehow political and anthropomorphized, tied up with human associations. Toads having sex are like tiny people performing The Rite of Spring. The wild is a place where you can escape to make love safely, far away from the eyes and ears of your landlady or The Party (although Winston Smith does worry that there may be microphones hidden in the trees!). Despoiling your fishing hole is a Bad Thing not because of pollution or dead fish but because it insults your inner picture of the world.

In his abbreviated career, Orwell remained very much the urbanized literary man, never the countryman. He saw natural phenomena as things that had to be justified and rationalized in a utilitarian way, so they could fit into his world view. Or at least have some literary usefulness.

For Williamson, literary usefulness was pretty much beside the point. He received commissions and royalties from his columns and books, but basically he earned his living from the soil. For him, toads were toads and pigs were pigs. This was reality, and the important thing about his little piggies was that they were starving and needed to be fed, or else they would die.

Here, then, is a Henry Williamson column from the Evening Standard, early 1940. He is describing a scene on his north Norfolk farm. The column is followed by its then-worldly (but now extremely obscure) adjoining headline. Williamson’s agony over his hungry piglets describes a situation that could very well have occurred a millennium before.

Cold Comfort

Come with me into the open air this afternoon, and help me saw up logs for the hearths in the farmhouse below. It’s frosty, the pipes in the cow-house are frozen. 

Take this Norwegian saw, with its razor-thin serrated band, which will cut through a two-inch green bough in four strokes – or would, before someone used it for four-hundred-year-old oak posts. 

It’s pretty hard work, you say, using it now? Well, carry on, it will get you warm, anyway! 

Half an hour later, we are warm and glowing, although when we touch the blade of either saw with a finger, it sticks to the steel. That will tell how keen the frost is. 

It’s as cold as it was in the High Pyrenees, years ago with old Kit, when we climbed up all day stripped to the waist, and skied down at night, when the stars were flashing and the frosty snow-flakes glinted in the flashes of Sirius. 

Down there, before a typewriter, one shivers, although a rug is round the knees; out here, it’s grand, and the pile of logs grows higher. Forgotten for the moment are the problems of farming: the delay in delivery of the deep-digger plough; the pigs below which are being fed on sugar-beet tops and crushed oats, because there is no proper food available. 

Twenty-four little pigs – and for weeks I have not been able to buy any proper food for them. I can’t send them to market, either, for the market is closed to ‘stores’, owing to swine fever in the district. 

The food-merchants tell me they get supplies only with the greatest difficulty, and then in small quantities. 

Meanwhile my little pigs are half-starved, and I only hope that the R.S.P.C.A. won’t prosecute me for cruelty. 

However, let’s forget it for a while and saw some more wood. And when the arm is tired we’ll enjoy the view. Isn’t everything quiet? The gold of the sunshine seems frozen, immingled with the frosty air; hardly a sound. 

Even the sea is silent on the distant sands, where the geese wait until twilight to come in and feed on the clover in the fields. Let’s hope they leave some for hay next summer. Shoot them? You’ll be lucky to get within two hundred yards of them. They have sentinels out, watching with raised heads. 

Twilight comes suddenly, with purple-red afterglow of the sun hiding coldly behind the frosty fog creeping up the valley with still layers of cottage chimney smoke. The nip comes back to ear and finger-tips. The old car slithers over the rimed grass, drawing the trailer. And suddenly five airplanes roar overhead, low, from their vigil across the North Sea. One lags behind, the engines spluttering. It lurches through the air, so low that we can see one of the crew be- hind the crystal dome. 

Are they very cold in there? They fly on, and we go down to the farm to look at the little pigs. This is the age of endurance – for a better future, we hope.  

Wednesday, 17 January 1940  




1.  http://www.henrywilliamson.co.uk/hw-and-the-first-world-war

2. Originally published in Tribune and The New Republic, 1946. Collected in In Front of Your Nose: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 4. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,  1968.

Henry Williamson, George Orwell, and the Pigs