Other segments from the episode on November 10, 2003
DATE November 10, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Henry Wiencek discusses his book "An Imperfect God"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is on assignment. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
It's one of the more wrenching ironies of American history. The founding
fathers not only owned slaves, but in some instances had children by them,
failed to free them and permitted slavery to be accommodated in the
Constitutional system. George Washington himself kept 300 slaves at Mount
Vernon and had slaves serve in his presidential homes in New York and
Philadelphia. But by the end of his life, this had become a torment for him.
And in his will, he made provisions for their eventual freedom.
How he came to this decision is the subject of historian Henry Wiencek's new
book, "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of
America." Wiencek found evidence in Washington's private papers, in court
records and archives, that the first president had begun to see the evils of
slavery even before he took office, but that he regrettably let social,
financial and personal pressures overcome his moral qualms. Henry Wiencek has
written extensively on race in early American history and on plantation life
in Virginia. Wiencek says that Washington's decision in 1799 to emancipate
his slaves sets him apart from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and his other
contemporaries, that it was truly revolutionary.
Mr. HENRY WIENCEK (Author/Historian): We look back on that time and think
that the founding fathers simply did not see the evil of slavery and that they
did not think that the African-Americans were not fully human beings, and
that's simply not true. I mean, I document in my book how many of the
founders said things that reveal that they were deeply aware of the evil of
slavery. But Washington was really the only one who acted upon it. He was
the only founding father to free all of his slaves. Jefferson died possessing
about 200 slaves, and he only let five of them go in his will. And two of
them were either his children or his nephews. Another one was related to him
distantly. And the other two were loyal servants. But Washington really
stands out. He's almost unique.
BOGAEV: Well, one of the strongest bits of evidence, of course, is George
Washington's will, in which he write that his 123 slaves at the time of his
death, after his wife's death, should receive their freedom. So how much
detail, though, does he go into in the will, and what can you read into the
wording about how he came to this decision and the circumstances of it?
Mr. WIENCEK: You can read a tremendous amount into that will. It's really an
extraordinary document, I think, one of the most important documents that
Washington has left us. But a couple of things struck me when I read that
will. First of all, it's the second longest clause in his will, and it's the
first major clause in the will. Right after the customary one-line bequest of
all of his property to Martha for as long as she might live, he went into this
emancipation clause, which runs for almost three pages. And the other thing I
noticed after reading the entire will a couple of times is that the language
of the emancipation clause is incredibly vehement. It's almost like a field
order. It has the harsh tone of command to it, as if he were talking to
people he knew would try to resist his will. And he uses phrases like, `This
clause respecting slaves must be religiously obeyed without evasion, neglect
or delay. It's extremely strong language.
BOGAEV: Now Washington did come from a line of politically influential men,
but his father died when he was very young, and his own financial prospects
were very bleak. And really, it was his marriage that was the making of him.
And through his marriage, he gained a good deal of property and slaves. So
I'm wondering what this means in the context of his life, that he would come
this far by the end of it, and how his family circumstances and the place he
occupied in the social order informed his thinking on slavery.
Mr. WIENCEK: Well, all of his family members held what we might call
traditional or conventional ideas about slavery. And by that, I mean that
they saw the slaves as a source of wealth. And Martha, for example, really
clung to that idea. I have an interesting quote in the book. You see,
Martha, as many people know, was married before she was married to George
Washington. Her first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, who was an enormously
wealthy planter. He died very suddenly when Martha was, I believe, 27 years
old, leaving her with two small children and an enormous fortune of about
40,000 pounds in land, slaves and cash. So when Washington married her, he
was marrying one of the largest fortunes in Virginia, and that fortune is what
allowed him to build Mount Vernon into the plantation that it became. Without
Martha's money, he couldn't have done that. And she never gave up the idea
that slaves were one of the foundations of the Custis family's wealth and
It's interesting that when she wanted to marry Daniel Parke Custis, his father
for a long time would not allow it, because he dismissed her as being much
inferior in point of fortune in his words, and Martha did not want that to
happen to her children and grandchildren. So she was determined to hang onto
her slave property.
BOGAEV: Washington owned, at one time, hundreds of slaves. What kind of
master was he?
Mr. WIENCEK: He was a surprisingly harsh man. This was one of the things
that was sort of difficult for me to come to terms with, because we like to
think of the great founders such as Jefferson and Washington as being
benevolent toward their slaves. But the records really show without any
arguing about it that his slaves were miserably clothed. They were miserably
housed. They worked very hard. Physical punishment was routine on
Washington's plantations. It was not unduly harsh or brutal, but it was
there. And the slaves on his plantations were so badly clothed that they were
stealing the wheat sacks made of the cheapest, roughest burlap to repair their
own clothes. And this outraged Washington and his manager that the slaves
were stealing. But the slaves, otherwise, would go around in rags. It was a
very harsh place.
BOGAEV: I'd like you to read a letter that you quote in the book, that
Washington wrote to a captain of a ship bound for the West Indies. It's
concerning a troublesome slave that he wanted to unload.
Mr. WIENCEK: Yes. This was about a slave named Tom who, in 1766, had run
away from Mount Vernon, and Washington had to pay two pounds to have him
recaptured. But no sooner did he have him recaptured then he sent him off
with this letter which was written to the captain of a schooner headed for the
`Sir, with this letter comes a negro, Tom, which I beg the favor of you to
sell in any of the islands you may go to for whatever he will fetch. And
bring me in return for him, one hogshead of the best molasses, one hogshead of
the best rum, one barrel of limes if good and cheap, one pot of tamarinds, two
small pots of mixed sweet meats and the residue, much or little, in good old
spirits. That this fellow is both a rogue and a runaway, though he was by no
means remarkable for the former, and never practiced the latter till of late,
I shall not pretend to deny. But that he is exceedingly healthy, strong and
good at the hoe, the whole neighborhood can testify, which gives me reason to
hope he may, with your good management, sell well if kept clean and trimmed up
a little when offered to sale. I shall very cheerfully allow you the
customary commissions on this affair and must beg the favor of you, lest he
should attempt his escape, to keep him handcuffed till you get to sea or in
the bay, after which I doubt not but you may make him very useful to you. I
wish you a pleasant and prosperous passage and a safe and speedy return.
Being Sir, etc., George Washington.'
BOGAEV: You know, it's so breezy, that letter, isn't it? That's what...
Mr. WIENCEK: It is.
BOGAEV: ...struck me...
Mr. WIENCEK: It is.
BOGAEV: ...reading it, considering he's essentially sending this man off to a
likely death at hard labor on the sugar plantation.
Mr. WIENCEK: That's right. The West Indies plantations were notorious for
their terrible conditions where slaves were routinely worked to death. And
Washington knew that, because he had spent some time there as a teen-ager.
And it's really upsetting to hear the breezy tone with which he sends this man
off to a likely death. It's a picture of Washington that we don't like to
see. It's Washington as the young master almost exalting in his power over
BOGAEV: Now DNA testing has confirmed that Thomas Jefferson had children with
at least one of his slaves at Monticello, Sally Hemings. Have their been
similar cases made for George Washington? Have any descendants of slaves at
Mount Vernon come forward?
Mr. WIENCEK: Yes. There was a lot of controversy about that. Right after
the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings DNA announcements in 1998, some descendents
of a slave named West Ford came forth and said that the oral history in their
family had always maintained that George Washington was the father of West
Ford. And there were a number of problems with this, one of which is that
that specific oral history had never been written down. So with the Jefferson
and Hemings stories, that oral history had been written down in the 19th
century. But putting that aside, there were also other problems with the
story, because West Ford's mother was a slave named Venus who lives on George
Washington's brother's plantation, not at Mount Vernon. And the brother's
plantation, called Bushfield, was about 90 miles away. So at first, it was
thought that it was impossible for Washington to have met Venus and to have
been West Ford's father. However, I came across some documents that had been
overlooked until now, which showed that it was technically possible for
Washington to be West Ford's father, but I strongly doubt that he was.
BOGAEV: Well, what do you make of this chapter at least in the George
Washington history, that, despite sleuthing, you have not been able to uncover
any offspring of his?
Mr. WIENCEK: There have been rumors swirling around Washington of one sort
or another for many, many decades. I mean, I ran across one funny quote that
he was known as the stallion of the Potomac. And there have been long rumors
that he had a long-term affair with Elizabeth Powell who was the wife of the
mayor of Philadelphia during the presidency. But there's really no substance
to this. The fact of the matter is, Washington was very striking. He was
very striking. He was very handsome, very tall, a very powerful looking man,
and he was magnetic to women. But the other side of that is that he was a
very disciplined man, and he was obsessed with his reputation, rightly so,
because he felt that his reputation was important to the reputation and
integrity of the government. So I find it very, very unlikely that he would
risk his personal and public reputation for an affair or even a brief
encounter of any kind. That's only my opinion. I have no firm evidence.
Washington never set down in so many words, `I have never done anything with
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Henry Wiencek. His new book is "An Imperfect God:
George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America." We're going to
take a break now, and then we're going to talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with historian Henry Wiencek. He's the author of a new book
about George Washington and how Washington came, over the course of his life,
to renounce the institution of slavery. It's called "An Imperfect God."
What's the earliest evidence that you uncovered that signals a real shift in
Washington's opinion about the morality of slavery?
Mr. WIENCEK: The first evidence I saw came about really in 1775 when in
correspondence with one of his managers reveals that for the first time that
he was refusing to break apart slave families. He was trying to buy a skilled
slave from a plantation in Maryland, and the man did not want to leave his
family. And there was a really striking sentence in the letter from the
manager, saying that the man would rather die than leave his family. And
Washington had agreed with the slave and with the slave's owner that he
wouldn't take the slave all by himself unless he wanted to go, but if the
whole family became available for sale, he would buy them. And that's a
really remarkable thing, because it shows that Washington had crossed a
psychological divide, because just a few years before that, he had been buying
and selling slaves without any compunction. And at one point, he even raffled
off slave children to collect a debt that was owed to Martha's family.
You see, the interesting thing is that there are really two Washingtons, one
from before the Revolutionary War, and one after. And there's almost no
comparison. I mean, the man was not the same for his whole life.
BOGAEV: Well, what do you think got him to that point in 1775?
Mr. WIENCEK: I think that he was just moved by the horror of seeing black
families broken up. I do a lot of research with African-American genealogists
today, and I hear a lot of oral histories. And one of the things that keeps
popping up in these oral histories is, in terms of the brutality of slavery,
the brutality seemed to come more from stories of families being broken up
than from physical brutality. I think that our modern thinking about the
harshness of slavery has been formed by visions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," you
know, of harsh whippings. But when you hear the oral histories, the pain that
mostly echoes down in the generations has to do with the brutal separations of
families by forced sale. And I think that Washington began to see this. And
the other thing that changed him, I think, was the heroism and loyalty of so
many black men during the Revolutionary War, who fought for the American
BOGAEV: I'd like to talk about the war. You write in the book that George
Washington won the Revolutionary War with an army that was more integrated
than any military force until the Vietnam War. That really struck me. Also
that reportedly a quarter of the Continental Army was black...
Mr. WIENCEK: At one point, right, right.
BOGAEV: ...as were three-fourths of Washington's bravest regiment. So how
instrumental was Washington in enlisting so many African-Americans into the
Mr. WIENCEK: He was. He was very instrumental. This could not have been
done without his support. To me, the most striking thing was that I found out
that at the end of the war, when the army was dwindling, when manpower was one
of the gravest problems facing the American cause, the men with Washington
represented the hard-core of devotion to the American cause and to Washington,
himself. And an astonishing number of them were black men. There's a diary
written by a German officer on the French staff who visited Washington's camp
in 1781. And when he looked out over the soldiers, he said, `A quarter of
them were negroes, merry, confident and sturdy.' And then he said, `Three
quarters of the Rhode Island Regiment consists of negroes, and that regiment
is the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its
maneuvers.' Now this remark in the diary of the German officer would be just a
little footnote of history except that a few weeks later, Washington and
Lafayette hand-picked the Rhode Island Regiment to lead the decisive attack on
the British at Yorktown. So the unit that won for us our liberty and rights
was three-quarters black, and we don't know that. I think that's something
that we all should know, because, I mean, that bit of history, a lot of
history, actually, has been stolen from African-Americans, and that's one
thing that everyone should know.
BOGAEV: Do you see it, then, as a pragmatic decision on Washington's part at
first, that he needed the manpower, and he was impressed with the regiment,
and that pushed him over the line of disregarding race?
Mr. WIENCEK: That was partly it. The issue of allowing blacks, either slave
or free, to enlist in the Continental Army came up the very moment Washington
took command in July of 1775 in Cambridge. And when he arrived there, he
looked around and he saw something that must have shocked him as a Southern
planter. He saw all these black men walking around, carrying guns. And I'm
sure he'd never seen that before except for, you know, the handful of favored
slaves who were allowed to go hunting for the master. But in one of their
first councils of war of the American officers, Northern and Southern decided
to ban blacks. But later on, later in the fall, a group of former black
soldiers came to Washington's headquarters and said, in Washington's words,
that they were very much dissatisfied at being discarded, and Washington
changed his mind. He decided to take these men back in. And that was really
the first time that he had capitulated to an appeal from black men, and he
also needed them. And in the horrible winter at Valley Forge, when the
American cause was very short of troops, Washington gave his consent, and his
enthusiastic consent, to recruiting a regiment of blacks in Rhode Island. And
that formed the nucleus of the first Rhode Island Regiment that fought at
BOGAEV: So did Washington go on record to recognize the importance of
African-American soldiers during the Revolution?
Mr. WIENCEK: No, he never did. And it's very curious, because after the
war, the Marquis de Lafayette often spoke of the valor of black men.
Lafayette was the officer who was probably closest to George Washington, and
after the Revolution, Lafayette begged Washington to begin emancipating his
slaves. He said something interesting. He said, `My dear general, an example
such as yours may render it a general practice,' meaning emancipation. And
when he toured America, he always made a point of visiting with black veterans
and embracing them in public and stating that the American cause had been won
with African-American blood. But the white American officers were very
reluctant to acknowledge publicly the contribution of the slaves.
BOGAEV: Henry Wiencek's new book is "An Imperfect God: George Washington,
His Slaves, and the Creation of America." We'll talk more in the second half
of our show. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our interview with history Henry Wiencek about George
Washington's evolution from slave owner to emancipator. Wiencek's new book,
"An Imperfect God," explores Washington's treatment of his slaves and his
gradual acknowledgment of the inhumanity of slavery. The story casts doubts
on the myths of the first father of our nation and his moral stature.
Reading your account, Washington sounds so conflicted. And I think that's
never more apparent that in the period after the war, after Washington was
elected to the presidency, and he moved his family north, first to residences
in New York and then Philadelphia. And he took slaves with him to the
northern states, which had different laws pertaining to individual freedom and
the legality of slavery. How did Washington respond to the new atmosphere
that was less supportive of the institution, and what does this chapter in his
life say about him as a man?
Mr. WIENCEK: Well, Washington was shocked to find out that Pennsylvania had
passed a law saying that any slaves who resided in Pennsylvania for more than
six months could become free. At first, he thought that he would be exempt
from it because he didn't regard himself as a permanent resident of
Pennsylvania, but only there as part of his business, namely being president
of the United States. But an interesting thing comes out of this, and it's
not very flattering to Washington. He instructed his secretary to trick the
slaves into leaving Philadelphia before they could obtain a six-month
residency. He said, `Find some excuse to bring them down to Virginia before
six months is up, and then bring them back and the clock will start again.'
And you know, again, he said that, `I want this done under a pretext that will
deceive both them and the public.' And so it's not a very flattering thing
for the man who supposedly could not tell a lie.
BOGAEV: A number of slaves did run away during this period, and it sounds as
if Washington came to something of a personal crisis in his dealings with
runaway slaves, particularly with one slave, Ona Judge. Tell us about that.
Mr. WIENCEK: Ona Judge. That--yeah, she touched off a major crisis. And
also, the episode of Ona Judge, I think, takes us really into the psychology
of the Washington family, because you see here a real split between the
thinking of George and Martha Washington. Ona Judge was a house servant, a
young servant; she was just in her late teens. And she was very close to
Martha Washington. She was a seamstress, and she was Martha's personal
servant. She helped Martha arrange her hair and get dressed, and she took
care of Martha's clothing. She went to public events with Martha. She was
extremely good-looking. She was almost white, which was one reason she was
chosen for that post as Martha's--she would be sort of the public face of
slavery, someone who was very--you know, presented herself very well, who
looked intelligent. And even though she was the most pampered of all slaves,
she hated slavery and she ran away. She successfully--with the help of the
Underground in Philadelphia, she managed to get on a ship which brought her to
Now Martha was outraged at the ingratitude of this slave who would run off
from her inner circle. Washington, it seems, was inclined to let Ona Judge
go, especially since she'd gotten all the way to New Hampshire. But Martha
was enraged and went to Washington and said that she was going to take out an
advertisement to get Ona Judge brought back. Washington was appalled at this
because it would be a tremendous blow to his reputation to have the sitting
president advertising for a runaway slave. And the other thing they were
afraid of is that Ona might have been made pregnant, according to a rumor
going around, by Martha's own nephew. And this is all in the book. John
Adams wrote it down in his diary.
But Martha insisted, and so George Washington had poor Ona pursued and almost
kidnapped. But Ona was very smart; she eluded everybody who went after her.
And she made it plain to a federal official up in New Hampshire that she had
run away because she wished to be completely free, and she had great respect
for the Washingtons as persons, but she would not go back to slavery.
BOGAEV: When did Martha learn of his change to his will?
Mr. WIENCEK: I think that she didn't know about the emancipation clause until
it was read to her when her husband was in the ground. There is very strong
evidence that Washington kept his final emancipation plan a secret. He wrote
to some of his relatives before he died explaining to them what land they
would get, what property they would get, but he never said that they would not
get slaves, which is really extraordinary because that was one of the most
important things that they would have to plan for. And it's obvious that he
was keeping that part of his plan secret. And I think from the language of
the clause, it seems that Washington expected that Martha would be surprised
BOGAEV: Was slavery something that George and Martha Washington talked about?
Is there any record of that?
Mr. WIENCEK: I think that the fact that from Washington's will, we can see
that the emancipation would come as a shock to Martha, that shows that by the
end of their lives together, they weren't even speaking about slavery. From
looking at other family wills, you can see that husbands and wives very
carefully sat down and planned and negotiated what the distribution of assets
would be, including slaves, when a husband died or a wife died. In this case,
George and Martha did not do that. It's obvious that Martha didn't have any
part in planning George Washington's estate. I think it's because they were
so far apart on the issue of slavery that they couldn't even speak about it.
BOGAEV: So as you understand it, it was family pressures, along with the
financial and the societal pressures, that kept his hand in slavery until
pretty much the end of his life.
Mr. WIENCEK: Until the last summer of his life, when it seems that there's
very strong evidence that he had a premonition of death, and that's why he put
on paper his final emancipation plan. He did not want his wife's family to
get their hands on his slaves if he died suddenly and unable to write a will
that would free them. And as I interpret it, I say this at the end of the
book that I read his will as being a tacit appeal from beyond the grave to
Martha and her family to join him in emancipating all of the Mt. Vernon
slaves, but they refused to do it. It's interesting Martha owned only one
slave in her own name legally, a man named Elish, and she refused to free even
him. She refused even to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity with her
husband. It's really striking. And she was determined to preserve slavery
because it was the source of her family's wealth and status.
BOGAEV: Well, what, in the end, do you come away with from having traced
George Washington's path? I mean, we knew he owned slaves, but that he
decided so late in the day to renounce slavery--what are we to think, better
or worse of him?
Mr. WIENCEK: Well, his decision did not come all that late. I mean, his
final decision was written down in the last year of his life. But I found
indications that 10 years before that, in 1789, he had already begun to talk
in private of an emancipation plan. And he came up with that idea just before
he became president, and I think that he may have been pondering making a
public gesture of beginning to free some Mt. Vernon slaves, to set a precedent
that the chief executive of the United States does not hold slaves.
Then later on he wrote that one of the things that was holding him back from
freeing his slaves was his concern over the political repercussions, because
during his presidency the country was almost torn apart by debate over a
treaty with Great Britain, Jay's Treaty. And Washington thought that the
country was being driven to the brink of a precipice, in his words. And it
was exactly at that time that he began to think again of a plan for freeing
his slaves. But he was worried about the public impact. On the other hand, I
also speculate that he may have wanted to touch off a strong public reaction
through an emancipation. It's hard to know what was in his mind because he
wrote down so little and he was such a secretive person. You really have to
dig very deeply to find his motivations.
BOGAEV: Well, Henry Wiencek, thanks very much for talking with me today on
Mr. WIENCEK: Well, thank you very much for having me on. I really appreciate
BOGAEV: Henry Wiencek's new book is "An Imperfect God."
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up, a review of a new CD from Rufus Wainwright. This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rufus Wainwright's album "WANT one"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Rufus Wainwright has just released his third album, called "WANT one." In many
of these new songs, he intimates and at times directly addresses the
unhappiness and substance abuse he's talked about in recent interviews. Rock
critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(Soundbite of "Oh, What A World")
Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Men reading fashion magazines. Oh, what a
world it seems we live in. Straight man. Oh, what a world we live in. Why
am I always...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Rufus Wainwright commences "WANT one" with that composition, "Oh, What a
World," elaborately arranged, invoking Ravel's "Bolero." Wainwright moans,
quote, "What a world my parents gave me, always traveling but not in love."
It's an almost absurdly over-the-top piece of self-pity, so extravagant you
find yourself shaking your head, either in admiration for its gutsiness or
wonderment at its mawkishness. The song is aptly chosen to lead off this
intentionally Baroque, bitter album.
(Soundbite of "Vicious World")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Thought that maybe we'd fall in love over the
phone. Thought that I'd really love being alone. Everybody but heaven knows
how I was wrong. Oh, Lord, what have I done to myself? What have I done to
myself in this vicious world?
TUCKER: In that song, "Vicious World," Wainwright sings, `Oh, Lord, what have
I done to myself?' And in interviews promoting "WANT one," Wainwright is
talking about what he's done to himself since the release of his last album,
"Poses," three years ago: consuming a lot of drugs and alcohol, venturing
into what he called in The New York Times a, quote, "gay hell," and doing a
stint in rehab. You could say that the music that results from this is in his
blood. As the son of singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, Rufus knows how to
make misery artfully pretty. As the song of singer-songwriter Loudon
Wainwright, he knows how to be fearlessly autobiographical.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I don't want to make it rain. I just want to make
it simple. I don't want to see the light. I just want to see the flashlight.
I don't want to know the answer...
TUCKER: My chief problem with Rufus Wainwright is that, unlike those parents
he alternately blames and loves--a bit too intensely for a man of 30, I might
say--he's become mannered in an almost unbearable extent. He's taken that
gorgeous tenor voice of his and, with each succeeding record, exaggerated his
melismatic slurs and florid croon. He knows how great he can sound, and that
knowledge seeps into every arrangement on "WANT one." It's less a showcase
than a showing off of technique, of musical eclecticism. He started out full
of a spiteful energy and go-for-broke emotionalism. On this album, however,
his voice officially becomes a trademark. I can almost hear the little
copyright circle above every distended phrase. As for the layered production
style, much of it comes straight out of '70s West Coast pop music, whether
he's invoking Van Dyke Parks' art records of that era or a Mamas & Papas
arrangement like this.
(Soundbite of "14th Street")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) You got my lost brother's soul, my dear mother's
eyes, brown horse's mane and my uncle's name. You walk me down 14th Street
for the doctor to meet after thoughts of the grave in the home of the brave
and the weak. But why'd you have to break all my heart? Couldn't you have
saved just a little bit of it? Why'd you have to break all my heart?
TUCKER: Throughout "WANT one," Rufus Wainwright sounds unhappy, restless and
exploited in his endless pursuit of happiness and contentment. This is a
classic theme in much gay culture, in novels and movies as well as pop music.
The problem is that Rufus isn't adding much to the tradition. For a guy who
claims to have gone through so much in his three decades, he still seems stuck
on feeling abandoned by Daddy. Loudon Wainwright divorced Kate McGarrigle
when Rufus was three, and the subsequent abandonment is something that has
haunted both men. The father has written many songs about his own
loutishness, sometimes masking his shame and pain with humor, sometimes not.
The son is still all bruised pain, as he proves on the album's closing song,
"Dinner At Eight," which gives full vent to a fight Rufus has said he had
with his father over a meal they had after a Rolling Stone photo shoot.
(Soundbite of "Dinner At Eight")
Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) No matter how strong, I'm gonna take you down with
one little stone. I'm gonna break you down and see what you're worth, what
you're really worth to me. Dinner at 8 was OK before the toast full of
blames. It was great until those old magazines got us started up again.
Actually, it was probably me again. Why is it so...
TUCKER: The frustrating thing about that song and so many others on "Want
One" is that Rufus sidles up to pent-up emotions, ready to release them in a
torrent, only to drown them in string sections and coyly oblique metaphors.
He's not yet enough of a wordsmith to earn his Cole Porter world weariness,
let alone his father's just plain weariness. And if he doesn't watch it,
Rufus won't be the tunesmith who'll provide his fans the passion and release
that they and he crave so much.
BOGAEV: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.
Coming up, Beatle mania and beyond. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Devin McKinney's book "Magic Circles"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
In his new book "Magic Circles," Devin McKinney tries to crack the mystery of
what made The Beatles something entirely more than just a rock 'n' roll band
that happened to become extraordinarily popular. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
says he comes closer than a lot of other Beatles scholars.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
`You look like a Beatle,' my husband told me a few nights ago. I was curled
up in a chair reading Devin McKinney's new book on The Beatles called "Magic
Circles," and I stopped reading dead in midsentence, because what he said hit
me with the force of an epiphany. I do look like a Beatle--at least my hair
does--and so does the hair of a lot of other 40-something women: bowled on
the top with bangs in the front, shaggy in the back. On good days, it looks
like Paul's; on bad, flat like Ringo's. Decades ago, my generation of women
sat transfixed before the family TV and watched The Beatles twist and shout on
"Ed Sullivan," and then played The Beatles the next day in living-room
concerts with our girlfriend. Critic Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about this
phenomenon in her book "The Hearts of Men" and rightly said that we, then
seven- and eight-year-old tweeny-boppers, didn't so much want to date The
Beatles as be them. Maybe subconsciously we still do. Our middle-aged mop
tops are the giveaway.
Devin McKinney wants to figure out Beatle mania and beyond in his book. He
was born in 1966, as he points out, about a month after The Beatles gave their
last live concert. But he's smart, and just as importantly, he's a fan, a
generation Xer who believes that rock 'n' roll miracles can occur, even if
he's never personally witnessed one on this scale. "Magic Circles" is the
book to read especially to gain a deeper understanding of the genesis of The
Beatles and their early, joyous music. At his best, McKinney elucidates the
central role The Beatles played in 1960s dream life. At his weakest, toward
the end of his book, McKinney goes all mythic on us. But most of "Magic
Circles" is so provocative and scrupulously researched, its faults are
forgivable, just the way you forgive those instrumentals interlarded on the
"Help!" album because a masterpiece like "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"
is always just a groove or two ahead.
In the beginning, McKinney tells us, The Beatles, previously named The
Quarrymen, burrowed underground, playing basement holes like The Cavern Club
and also behaving like cultural parasites, piecing themselves together from
skiffle music, Little Richard roadhouse and uptown girl-group harmony.
McKinney rightly analyzes every bootleg guitar twang from this subterranean
period. looking for the moment. He finds it in 1960, in the Star Club in
Hamburg, Germany. There, McKinney says, is the seed of all that came later,
the mania, The Beatles pushing, their audience pushing back. McKinney talks
brilliantly about the performances of this German chrysalis period, about how
The Beatles take a song like Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and beat it
to within an inch of its life, precisely because they're not American. They
had to work harder because the song's Americanisms don't mean anything to them
or their German audience. Either it would rock or it would do nothing at all.
And so out of this straining comes John Lennon's famous scream and the group's
trademark breakouts and The Beatles' promise, musically and otherwise, that
something will happen.
McKinney goes on to do some terrific extended close readings of Beatles songs,
especially controversial ones like "Revolution," which was reviled by the New
Left in 1968 for not being militant enough. Discussing their movies, he goes
beyond the received wisdom of "A Hard Day's Night," great, vs. "Help!"
sellout, to look at the uncanny symbolic subtext of both films; in particular,
"Help!'s" preoccupation with The Beatles' humiliation and sacrifice. In the
year after "Help!" The Beatles would become a locus of hatred for anti-Western
crowds in Japan and the Philippines, as well as conservative Christians in
this country, thanks to Lennon's cheeky observation about The Beatles becoming
more popular than God.
McKinney stops at all the familiar shrines, holy and blasphemous, on the
standard Beatles pilgrimage, but he offers lots of fresh, sometimes startling
ideas as to why they're still worth revisiting. Of course, some of us, the
aging Beatle maniacs with the shaggy hair, won't need to be persuaded.
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History" by Devin McKinney.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of "Revolution")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all
want to change the world. You tell me that it's evolution. Well, you know,
we all want to change the world. But when you talk about destruction, don't
you know that you can count me out. Yeah. Don't you know it's gonna be all
right. Don't you know it's gonna be all right. Don't you know it's gonna be
You say you got a real solution. Well, you know, we'd all love to see the
plan. You ask me for a contribution. Well, you know, we all do it when we
can. But when you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell
you is, brother, you'll have to wait. Don't you know it's gonna be all right.
Don't you know it's gonna be all right. Don't you know it's gonna be all
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