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Writer Ken Kesey

Writer Ken Kesey died Saturday 11/10/01 at the age of 66. Kesey was a leading figure of 60s counterculture. As the organizer of the Merry Pranksters, Kesey did as much as anyone to popularize the use of LSD and other hallucinogens. Kesey also wrote two of the most popular books of the era, Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He also the author of Demon Box, Caverns and other books.

17:34

Other segments from the episode on November 12, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 12, 2001: Interview with Niall Ferguson; Interview with Simon Schama; Obituary for Ken Kesey; Review of Jennifer Egan's new novel "Look at me."

Transcript

DATE November 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Niall Ferguson discusses the history of World War I
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we mourn those who died this morning on American Airlines Flight 587.
Today is also the day that we honor all those who have fought in defense of
the United States. Veterans Day originated as Armistice Day in commemoration
of the end of World War I. Historian Niall Ferguson is the author of "The
Pity of War: Explaining World War I." It's about how the First World War
changed the nature of war and changed the world. About 10 million people died
in the First World War between the years 1914 and 1918; about 20 million were
wounded.

Ferguson is British. He says that the First World War was worse for his
country than the Second. For example, more British soldiers were killed in
World War I than World War II. I asked him for other examples.

Mr. NIALL FERGUSON (Author, "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I"):
Well, I think one could make a general statement which would probably be true
of all the European states; namely, that the First World War was a bigger
shock. When the Second World War came along, there was a very clear memory of
what war was like. No one had any illusions about the enormous loss of life
that would arise in the event of a major European war, whereas in 1914, it's
clear that only the real specialists, the military planners, the people who
understood what heavy artillery could do, really grasped in 1914 what a
European war meant. And I think for that reason, the trauma, the caesura, is
that much greater. The difference between pre-war and post-war is somehow
greater in the case of the First World War than it is in the case of the
Second World War when everybody knows that they're letting themselves in for
hell when war breaks out.

GROSS: Would you describe a little bit about what the Western front was like,
what the trench warfare of the day was like?

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, trench warfare was a kind of return to siege warfare, in
one sense; namely, from a very early stage, really from the early days of
1915, the positions on the Western front were pretty much fixed. Very little
territorial change occurred until the spring of 1918, and then the rest of
1918 the war became a war of movement again. So for most of the war the front
is very static, much more than on the Eastern front, where there's much
greater mobility. And that means that the common experience of combat on the
Western front was that you sat in a hole in the ground and you hoped that the
shells wouldn't hit you. Most people--the majority of people are killed by
artillery shells. They're not killed in action by bayonets or rifles. And,
indeed, going over the top into action on an offensive is an exceptional
experience.

So it's a very sedentary war and it's an extremely nerve-racking war because I
think it's safe to say that the experience of being bombed, of being shelled
for hours at a time in these massive artillery bombardments, which went on in
the Western front, was probably one of the worst experiences a human being
could have in the 20th century. Even if you survived it, your nerves were
completely shattered.

GROSS: Would you describe one of the battles that had massive casualties?

Mr. FERGUSON: Well, for the British point of view, the most notorious battle
is the Battle of the Somme, with Passchendaele as a close second. Battle of
the Somme happened in 1916. In the summer of 1916, a massive army has been
accumulated and is sent towards German positions over the relatively flat
battlefield of the Somme; not a particularly good place to fight a battle,
but chosen because it was close to the French, and the French seemed to need
some support. And for reasons which are intimately bound up with a lack of
British preparation for the war, the fact that there simply hadn't been a big
British army in 1914, that almost everybody who goes over the top in 1916 has
been very hurriedly trained, and because the army itself does not really have
a theory of how you fight this kind of war, they march pretty slowly and
steadily towards German machine gun emplacements, which have been more or less
unscathed by the preceding bombardment.

Now the effect of the bombardment, which the British commander, Haig, firmly
believed would shatter German resistance, was simply to warn the Germans what
was going to happen next. The Germans had dug themselves in deep. When the
shells stopped, up they came from their emplacements, took up their machine
guns and they simply mowed down the advancing British soldiers. And the
casualties on the first day alone number tens and tens of thousands. Numbers
of killed in the whole of the Battle of the Somme, which lasted several
months, for Britain were greater than the number of Americans killed in the
whole Vietnam War.

GROSS: That's pretty amazing figures. The First World War resulted in a lot
of terrific literature, much of it anti-war literature. You quote Ernst
Junger's diary of a German front line at Guillemont in August of 1916, and he
writes, `Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in, we found them
in layers, stacked up one on top of another. One company after another had
been shoved into the drumfire and steadily annihilated.'

You also have a lot of pretty gruesome photographs in the book from World War
I, but the photograph I actually found most shocking was a photograph of
Scottish troops wearing kilts. And I'm thinking, `Wow, this is like fighting
trench warfare in a skirt.' It astounded me.

Mr. FERGUSON: It astounded the Germans, too. One of the things that German
writers about the war, men like Junger, often commented upon was the
particular aggressiveness and ferocity of the Scottish regiments, who were
instantly recognizable by their kilts. The kilt was only abandoned as
front-line dress relatively late in the war when it was realized that when
poison gas was released, Scottish soldiers suffered disproportionately because
the gas got under their kilts and inflicted terrible burns. But for most of
the war, the Scottish highland regiments wore the kilt. And the Germans
called them devils in skirts or the women from hell because, A, they were very
distinctive in the way that they dressed; they were also distinctive in the
way that they fought. And it's clear that the Scottish regiments not only
suffered the highest casualties of any army in the war, but also probably
inflicted pretty hefty casualties on the Germans. They were renowned for the
ferocity of their conduct in action.

And it's clear that, for example, Scottish regiments were involved in the
incidents of prisoner killing, which I detail in one of the chapters in the
books. This is important because my grandfather was in one of these
regiments, and I suppose I would never have written the book had it not been
for the realization that, as a teen-ager, my own grandfather had been in the
Seaforth Highlanders and had been one of those young men that you see in the
plates in the book sitting in the trench waiting to go over the top and kill
Germans.

GROSS: Do you know if he wore a kilt when he was in battle?

Mr. FERGUSON: Yes, he did. I still have it.

GROSS: Did you talk with him about that?

Mr. FERGUSON: I was very young when he died. I was about four or five when
my grandfather died, so I don't have clear recollections of the kind of
conversations that I would love to have with him now were he still alive, but
he talked enough with my father about it for me to have a reasonably good idea
of what his war was like. Unlike the famous war poets and war novelists,
nothing survives of my grandfather's war on paper, just a box full of a couple
of medals and a small Bible. But the memories he passed down through my
father to me were enough for me to reconstruct more or less what he went
through.

GROSS: What's one of those memories that your father shared with you?

Mr. FERGUSON: It seems pretty likely that my grandfather was there when the
Germans launched their final all-out offensive in the spring of 1918, which
very nearly won the war, because he described the experience of seeing the
advancing German infantry and preparing to be sent into action against them
and feeling absolutely certain that this was it, because the Germans at this
point seemed quite unstoppable. And at the very last minute, a neighboring
unit was sent over instead of his unit, and he was pretty sure that that
decision had saved his life. And that's one of the kind of stories that is
etched on my memory from my days as a small boy.

GROSS: How do you think World War I affected your family's feelings about
war?

Mr. FERGUSON: I think it had a very profound effect on Scotland because of
this very high mortality rate. My own school was dedicated as a war memorial
after the war was over, and so I went to school every day passing the war
memorial, which had in these huge letters, `Say not that the brave die,' and I
always used to think to myself, `Well, hang on. They did die, brave or not
brave.' And I certainly, as a schoolboy, was strongly attracted to the
anti-war message of poets like Wilfred Owen, whom I was encouraged to read by
my teachers. And I think my own family certainly were liberals with a pretty
strong pacifist streak. There was certainly no appetite for another war or
any more war in my family. And when my other grandfather had to go and fight
in the Second World War, and he ended up fighting the Japanese in Asia, it was
with no great enthusiasm and a deep sense of resignation.

And I think, for me, coming to terms with this family memory is part of the
reason for writing the book, not least because I began to realize that the
anti-war literature wasn't really the whole truth. In some ways, it's a
rather unrepresentative take on the front-line experience. I mean, you
mentioned Ernst Junger, but Ernst Junger is not an anti-war writer. When you
read Junger's account of being on the Western front, it's constantly referring
to the exhilaration of military experience, of the front experience. And for
people like Junger or, more notoriously, for soldiers like the young Adolf
Hitler, the First World War wasn't just a hellish experience; that at the same
time that it was hellish, it was also a supreme test of their manhood, of
their inner strength, and the friendships and comradeship of the front was
something which lived on in their imaginations after the war.

GROSS: Historian Niall Ferguson recorded in 1999 after the publication of his
book "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I."

Coming up, letters written between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine,
during World War I. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Jennifer Egan's new book "Look at Me"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Does a famous book club's endorsement on a novel's cover change its identity?
Does a new face change a person's essence? Book critic Maureen Corrigan
ponders these weighty questions.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Novelist Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey are just the latest in a long line
of artists and their patrons who've bickered on the subject of gratitude. In
fact, the outline of their argument is as old as cave painting. Oprah chooses
Franzen's recent, much acclaimed novel "The Corrections" to be featured on her
program's Book Club, which means big bucks for Franzen. Franzen responds by
sticking his hand out for the money while sneering at Oprah's middle-brow
taste in literature. He moans about how pasting an Oprah Book Club sticker on
his novel's cover will threaten his artistic integrity, turning him into just
another dray horse in Oprah's stable of writers. Oprah responds by rescinding
her invitation to Franzen to be on her show, causing Franzen to do a clumsy
full grovel.

Both players in this melodrama are taking themselves oh so seriously, and thus
they both come off looking like fools. Back in the 18th century, when one of
the most notorious artist-patron quarrels erupted, at least there was some
elegance to the insults. The specific situation is different, but I'm
thinking of the famous letter that Samuel Johnson wrote to his erstwhile
patron, Lord Chesterfield. When he, Johnson, was about to publish his
monumental "Dictionary of the English Language" in 1755, Chesterfield
contributed 10 pounds to the project, and then when the dictionary appeared,
he wrote an endorsement, published in two newspapers, that implied he'd
underwritten Johnson's years of labor. The irate Dr. Johnson responded, in
part, by writing these memorable sentences. `Seven years, my Lord, have now
passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door,
during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which
it is useless to complain, without one act of assistance, one word of
encouragement or one smile of favor. Is a patron, my Lord, one who looks with
unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached
ground, encumbers him with help?'

Now here's how classy Lord Chesterfield was. He kept a copy of Johnson's
letter on his library table, and would show it to visitors, remarking
sincerely, `The man has great powers.' No such class or wit is evident in the
current tussle. Unlike Franzen, Johnson had the good sense to know that
writers need all the support they can get. And unlike Oprah, Lord
Chesterfield had the grace to understand that money should defer to talent,
however cranky.

I confess, for years, I've nurtured a fantasy that Oprah's people would call
me up and invite me to be her private book critic, helping her to break out of
the very suffering and redemption literary rut that Jonathan Franzen has
accused her of being stuck in. I guess I've just blown that chance. But if I
were reigning this month as Oprah's court critic, I would have recommended to
her, on archly bended knee, Jennifer Egan's eerie new novel "Look at Me."
"Look at Me" is shrewdly self-conscious about its qualified salvation story,
and would surely join "The Corrections" in what Franzen pompously called the
`high-art literary tradition,' if anyone still bothered to keep score. I
should really say qualified salvation stories, because "Look at Me" consists
of two intertwined and stylistically experimental narratives, both featuring
women named Charlotte. Charlotte Swenson is an almost over-the-hill New York
model who crashes her car on a trip back home to Rockford, Illinois, and
survives the accident with every bone in her face broken. After two
operations, and months of swelling, she surfaces, a different person.

Here's how Charlotte describes her first post-accident visit back to a cafe
frequented by her high-fashion friends. `People I knew passed my table. Each
one looked at me in the particular way people do inside the fashion world, a
quick, ravenous glance that demands beauty or power as its immediate reward.
And then they looked away, as if what they had seen were not just unfamiliar,
but without possibility.'

The second Charlotte is the 13-year-old daughter of Charlotte Swenson's best
childhood friend. She's a mousy thing, overlooked by her parents, whose
anxious gaze is fixed on her beautiful younger brother who's battling
leukemia. This neglected teen-age Charlotte turns to two men for attention.
She becomes the intellectual protege of her mentally disturbed uncle, who's a
college professor obsessed with the discovery of clear glass in the 13th
century. She also becomes the sexual protege of a stranger named Michael
West, who's a fugitive from his own many past lives.

"Look at Me" is so engrossing, energetic, sharp and funny, it reminded me of
Ralph Ellison's masterpiece "Invisible Man," another novel that charts the
modernist riddle of human identity. Egan's book only falters towards its very
end, when a hackneyed terrorist plot twist, of all things, emerges. Egan will
probably never get a chance to dis Oprah the way Franzen did. Too bad,
because this is a darkly playful novel that both interrogates our culture of
spectacle and revels in it.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Look at Me" by Jennifer Egan.

(Credits)

GROSS: We'll close with some music. This is Billie Holiday's 1954 recording
of "P.S. I Love You."

(Soundbite of "P.S. I Love You")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Dear, I thought I'd drop a line. The
weather's cool. The folks are fine. I'm in bed each night at 9. P.S. I
love you.

Yesterday we had some rain, but all in all, I can't complain. Was it dusty on
the train? P.S. I love you. Write to the Browns just soon as you're able.
They came around to call.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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