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TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson, my
guest Randal Keynes, is the author of a book about how the death of Darwin's
10-year-old daughter Annie affected Darwin's thinking about evolution, religion
and human nature, and that's what we're going to talk about.
That book has just been adapted in a new film starring Paul Bettany and
Jennifer Connelly. The book, which was originally titled "Darwin, His Daughter
and Human Evolution," has been published in a new edition with the same title
as the film, "Creation."
My guest, Randal Keynes, is not only related to Darwin, he's the great-nephew
of economist John Maynard Keynes. His book "Creation" is based on Darwin family
papers, manuscripts in the Darwin archive, as well as the memoirs and letters
published after Darwin and his wife Emma died.
Keynes book begins in 1838, just before Darwin got married. This was a couple
of years after his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, sailing around the world
as the ship's naturalist. His observations on that trip led to his first book.
Randal Keynes, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book had me at the very first
paragraph. And it's about the quandary that Darwin was in, deciding whether to
marry or not. I'd like you to read that paragraph.
Mr. RANDAL KEYNES (Author, "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin"):
(Reading) When 29, Charles Darwin thought about marrying. He took a piece of
paper and wrote: This is the question. Under not marry, he jotted down: freedom
to go where one liked, choice of society and little of it, conversation of
clever men at clubs, not forced to visit relatives and to bend in every
(unintelligible), to have the expense and anxiety of children, perhaps
quarreling, loss of time. How should I manage all my business if I were obliged
to go every day walking with my wife? (Unintelligible), I never should know
French or see the continent or go to America or go up in a balloon.
Under marry, he wrote: Children, if it please God, constant companion and
friend in old age who will feel interested in one. He weighed up the points for
and against and made up his mind. My God, it is intolerable to think of
spending one's whole life like a neuter bee, working, working and nothing after
all. No, no, won't do. Imagine living all one's days solitarily in smoky, dirty
London house. Only picture to yourself a nice, soft wife on a sofa with a good
fire and books and music perhaps. Marry, marry, marry, Q.E.D.
GROSS: You know, this â outside of a slight touch of sexism there, it's such a
contemporary way of thinking about marriage, you know. Everybody wants to
balance work and family, everybody's having trouble doing it, and here's Darwin
trying to figure out how to do it in the 1800s.
Mr. KEYNES: Yes.
GROSS: And I thought â yeah.
Mr. KEYNES: Darwin writes it all out.
GROSS: Yeah, and he writes it all out. So he did marry. He had a â it sounds
like he had a really good relationship with his wife, a very intelligent woman.
He loved his children and even was doing, like, a natural history of babies.
Why was he studying his babies?
Mr. KEYNES: He was studying his babies because before he married, he had
realized that humans might be cousins to the great apes and the whole of the
animal kingdom if this idea that he had found, that species might change,
turned out to be true. And he started by looking at an orangutan, a young
orangutan that was brought to London Zoo, and seeing how like a human she was
by giving her things to play with and watching what she did and watching how
she responded to his comments and remarks and so on.
When he married, for the first time he was able to experiment with an infant to
see whether the infant behaved in similar ways. And he did this first with
Annie's elder brother, and then two years later, as a scientist, just to check
that this was a regular pattern of behavior with infants, he repeated all the
little experiments with Annie, and she did what her brother did. They were both
doing very much the same thing as the orangutan was doing, and this to him was
very important confirmation of the closeness of the link between human and
GROSS: So what were they doing in common, the infants and the orangutan?
Mr. KEYNES: They were responding to expressions, you know, smiles and fierce
expressions. They were showing an interest in objects given to them, and one
point that was particularly interesting was how the orangutan, and then the
infant, responded when it saw its reflection in a little hand mirror.
Darwin noticed that this little orangutan put her hand behind the mirror to see
if she could see, touch this thing that she could see in the mirror, to see
whether it was there. And Annie didn't do that, from which he concluded that on
that comparison, the ape was more intelligent than his loved child.
GROSS: How did he get access to an orangutan? You describe in your book about
how, you know, monkeys, apes were basically unknown in England and Europeâ¦
Mr. KEYNES: Yes.
GROSS: â¦at the time that Darwin was beginning his work.
Mr. KEYNES: Yes, there's a great irony about this because they were unknown
because all that were brought, as a number had been from Africa and from Asia,
caught very quickly the human diseases that they were subject to because they
were so close to us.
So a number had been brought, but they had all died almost immediately on
arrival in England. Jenny(ph) the orang was brought from Asia in 1838 and was
taken to London Zoo and was put on show in London Zoo. When Darwin heard that
this extraordinary creature was there, this animal that was so close to a
human, he went along with his notebook and with a little hand mirror and a
harmonica and I think some peppermints to see if the creature liked
peppermints, points like that.
And he spoke to the keeper of the orangutan and was allowed to go into the cage
and play with her, which he did. And then he made notes of everything that's
happened, and those were his basis for the comparison with his children when he
was able to play the same games with them.
GROSS: One of the things I find so fascinating about your book "Creation" is
your discussion of Charles Darwin's changing beliefs about religion as he got
deeper into his scientific pursuit of evolution. What were his religious
beliefs before he started to create the theory of evolution?
Mr. KEYNES: When he was on the voyage of the Beagle, which took five years,
immediately after he left university, he spent these five years traveling
around the world, seeing so much and picking up the clues to the possibility
that species might change. At that time, his beliefs were entirely orthodox. He
was a loyal and orthodox young Christian gentleman. I think that's how he would
have seen himself. He believed that the first chapter of Genesis was a literal
account of the creation of the world and then of life and then of humans.
With his realization of the possibility that species might change, he started
questioning his own beliefs. He asked, now what is this based on? How does this
idea that I have that species might change compare with the Bible's account of
God creating all the different kinds of animal in the Garden of Eden?
He questioned the biblical account. He went on questioning. He asked himself:
Why should I believe the biblical account alongside what I can see and work out
from what I see around me? And he grew increasingly uncertain that he should
and could believe the biblical account.
GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes, and he's the great-great-grandson of Charles
Darwin, and we're talking about his book "Creation: The True Story of Charles
Darwin." This book is the basis of a new film called "Creation."
Let's talk a little bit more about Darwin and religion. He was brought up as a
Unitarian. His wife, Emma, was a very devout Unitarian. What did it mean to be
a Unitarian for his wife, Emma?
Mr. KEYNES: The Unitarians had one pointed doctrine on which they differed from
the Church of England, and that had to do with the Trinity. They felt that God
was one and that Christ was a mortal who had pointed the way towards faith in
Emma was a devout Unitarian. She wasn't, as many people believe, a dogmatic and
certain Christian. What she felt, and this was a feature for many Unitarians,
was that faith was all-important, and the commitment to faith was the important
commitment of religion.
GROSS: Now, you write that one of the reasons why Darwin started to challenge
Genesis is he learned about the vastness of geological time.
Mr. KEYNES: Yes.
GROSS: And that led him to question the historical parts of the Hebrew Bible.
Mr. KEYNES: Thatâs absolutely right. And he always lived with the Bible, and he
knew all the parts that everyone else knew very well. He thought about them. He
found himself increasingly uncertain whether they could be a true and accurate
account of everything they claimed to be.
GROSS: You write that at some point, Darwin thought that his theory of
evolution accounted for cruelty and pain better, or at least differently, then
the Christian faith did. What did evolution have to say about cruelty and pain?
Mr. KEYNES: He didn't feel that his theory explained cruelty and pain. He
simply suggested that there might not be any explanation of cruelty and pain
like the ones offered in the Christian faith that had to do with punishment,
reward and so on and so forth. It was - his idea was that you shouldn't be
looking for explanations of cruelty and pain in what happens to people during
their lives and into their death.
GROSS: That there's no reason for it. There's no ordained reason for it.
Mr. KEYNES: Yes, that God isn't up there engineering events for anything â you
know, for any reasons to do with how we conduct our lives.
GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes. He's Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson
and author of the book "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Randal Keynes. He's a great-
great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and he's written a book called "Creation: The
True Story of Charles Darwin." And the book has been adapted into a film, which
is called "Creation," and it stars Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.
Some of your book revolves around Charles and Emma Darwin's daughter Annie. It
was their first daughter, and she died at the age of 10, after suffering some
pretty severe symptoms. What were her symptoms?
Mr. KEYNES: She became restless and ill at east when she was nine. It was clear
that she wasn't well, and she â nobody could say what was wrong with her. She
was taken for a cure for this illness, unknown illness, and while she was at
the spa where she was being treated with a form of water treatment - water
therapy to avoid medicines that many people at the time felt were poisons, not
medicines, and in fact they were poisons, not medicines â while she was at the
spa being given this treatment, she developed a fever. And the fever killed her
in a fortnight.
GROSS: One of the many parts of the story of Charles Darwin, as you tell it,
that has very contemporary resonance, is that, you know, the Darwins sought out
alternative therapies for their daughter Annie when she was sick, as so many
people seek out now. Let's talk a little bit about what the alternative
therapies of the time were. You mentioned water therapy. What was that therapy?
Mr. KEYNES: Yes, this was a very important point I found in the story, and it
all stemmed from the almost hopeless inadequacy of most medicine at the time.
The medicine that was taught in the medical schools, most of it was pretty
useless, and much of it was based on no proven efficacy of the medicine being
used. Many of the medicines were actually toxic because the doctors had no idea
of the effects of continuing to dose a child with mercury or other compounds
that they were...
GROSS: Strychnine is one of the things that you mentioned.
Mr. KEYNES: Yes, yes. So a person like Darwin wanted to find a treatment that
he could be confident would work. And the water treatment was offered by a
doctor who hated the medicines and could see how noxious they were to many
people that they were given to, and the other things like bleeding and so on.
This doctor formed an idea of how water might be able to help many conditions.
And he devised a set of treatments, and he offered them to people, and they
were found by many people to be effective. And Darwin found them to be
effective, and we have his notes of his treatment to show that, for him, they
were effective. And this wasn'tâ¦
GROSS: He had a lot of problems, too, very severe digestive problems.
Mr. KEYNES: I should explain that, yes.
GROSS: And some fever...
Mr. KEYNES: He was chronically ill himself with digestive problems, with skin
conditions, and he found empirically that this treatment was effective. And he
therefore, when the doctors couldn't cure Annie of her lingering malaise, he
took her to the spa to see if the water doctor's treatments might help.
GROSS: And the water treatment was what? You were wrapped in sheets of water,
in very wet sheets?
Mr. KEYNES: You - it was an alternation of hot water and cold water, shivering
and sweating. You were wrapped in towels. You were â water was thrown over you.
You lay in a warm room with â one treatment was heating by the lamp when you
encouraged a sweat. And it was based on a theory of how the body worked. The
theory doesn't stand up now - treatments of that kind.
GROSS: When Annie, the Darwins' daughter, died at the age of 10, they were â
the Darwins were devastated. You write that Emma hoped that Annie would go to
heaven and that eventually Emma would be able to join her there.
But on the other hand, after Annie's death, Charles gave up the Christian
faith. He didn't attend church services with the family. He walked them to the
church door but didn't go in. Why was Annie's death a turning point for him in
terms of his faith?
Mr. KEYNES: I have to say that I don't think Annie's death was a turning point
in the sense that he wouldn't have made that turning if she had recovered and
got better. It's clear that he was on a path, through the years before, of
increasing doubt about the Christian faith. And it's clear that in the year
after her death, he was no longer going to church. He would go with his family
to the church. They would go in, he would go away and walk around in the
countryside until they came out. Annie's death was just part of this long
letting-go of the faith that he had been brought up with.
GROSS: You write that Darwin still believed in a divine creator but not in his
infinite goodness. What were you able to glean about what Darwin's conception
of God was after â yeah.
Mr. KEYNES: Darwin thought long and hard about who, what God might be, what his
purposes might be, what his plans for humans and all of that might be. He just
couldn't form a clear picture. He worried, worried and worried at all the
questions that others were also asking themselves.
He never gave up. We know that from some comments he made right at the end of
his life, where he was clearly still worrying about these questions. He just
couldn't decide. He couldn't see anything clear in one area or another that
helped him to form a picture.
GROSS: How did Annie's death fit into his thinking about the survival of the
fittest and the death of the weak?
Mr. KEYNES: Annie's death showed him so clearly that this couldn't be anything
other than a natural process. It couldn't have anything to do with the moral
actions, desserts, whatever, of the child in question, the adult in question.
It had just to be the outcome of some natural process, the catching of a
disease, an accident or whatever.
GROSS: Randal Keynes will be back in the second half of the show. He's the
author of "Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin," which has just been
adapted into a new film of the same name, "Creation." I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Charles Darwinâs great-
great grandson, Randal Keynes. Keynes is the author of the book âCreation,â
about how the death of Darwinâs 10-year-old daughter, Annie in 1851, affected
Darwinâs thinking on evolution, religion and human nature. The new movie
âCreation,â starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, is adapted from Keynes
book, which was originally titled âDarwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution.â
Darwin published his now famous book âOrigin of Speciesâ in 1859.
He knew it was going to be controversial, then that was eight years after his
daughter Annieâs death. He published âDescent of Manâ in 1871. Youâve
researched what reaction was to Darwinâs theories in his own time. Now, those
theories are still controversial, probably more so in the United States than in
England, where you live? But tell us a little bit about what reaction was like
to his books in his own time.
Mr. KEYNES: When âThe Origin of Species,â was published in 1859, the reaction
by most respectable commentators was fiercely hostile. In a few years, people
had come to see that it didnât actually threatened religion in the ways that
the first critics had claimed that it did and I think creationists still due.
And there was much greater acceptance of the basic idea that he offered in the
âThe Origin of Species,â that species have a history of change, all species
including our own.
He published âThe Descent of Man,â partly because he felt that the Victorian
age, the world was now ready for the second part of his theory, because it has
been accepted enough for it to have a reasonable hearing. And Darwin ended up
being buried in Westminster Abbey when he died. That was a mark of how his
ideas had been accepted as worth thinking about, not rejected out of hand in
the 23 years, I think, between the publications of âThe Originâ and his death.
GROSS: Was the most controversial part in his time the theory that man evolved
Mr. KEYNES: Itâs quite clear, I think, that that was the point that rarely
rattles people. Not that we evolved from apes but that we are close cousins of
them. And that we, there is something animal of the hearts of human nature.
That was shocking to most people and it was so important for Darwin that we
should face up to that because while some of the implications were bad for us,
some were good for us and for animals, and he wanted everyone to understand the
good things about our common nature with animals as well as the bad things.
GROSS: In Darwinâs time, was his theory of evolution seen as a rejection of
Genesis and therefore a rejection of religion?
Mr. KEYNES: Some people who wanted to reject the Bible argued that it was and
took it as a text for atheism. Darwin was very unhappy for the argument to be
used in that way. He wouldnât associate himself with attacks like that, uses
like that of his argument. It was very important to him that many Christians
felt that there was no contradiction between readings of his theory and the
revelation, the faith that was so important to them. Very soon after the first
edition of âThe Origin of Speciesâ appeared, a prominent Christian commentator
wrote to him saying he welcomed Darwinâs theory, there was a great deal of
interest in it, and he saw no direct contradiction between his theory and the
teachings of Christianity.
Darwin was so pleased with that statement - he couldnât go along with the
signing up to faith himself. But he was so pleased that other people found no
contradiction that he put that statement into the second edition of the book.
And when the book was published again a month after the first publication, that
statement by this commentator, who was called Charles Kingsley, appears and
shows that Darwin wanted his theory to be seen to be consistent with
GROSS: Charles Darwinâs wife, Emma, believed in an afterlife and hoped that in
that afterlife she would be united with her husband, with Annie, her 10-year-
old daughter who died. Darwin gave up faith in an afterlife and I just try to
imagine what it was like for Emma wanting to be united in the afterlife with
her family, knowing that her husband didnât even believe in it and that he felt
very strongly about the reasons why - I mean, there were scientific reasons for
it too. I mean, he was able to reason out loud why he didnât believe in it.
How much do you think that that divided Emma and Charles during their marriage?
How much do you think it hurt Emma to think that her husband didnât believe in
Mr. KEYNES: It hurt her very greatly. Itâs quite clear from a number of letters
that survive in which she tried to explain to him why she so wished that he
could believe in God and the Christian revelation. She believed that faith in
God might be a condition for entry into heaven in the afterlife. She felt that
through his inability to believe in God, Darwin was giving up the chance of
eternal happiness in the afterlife with her. She was going to miss him.
These were intense and deep beliefs of hers and the tragedy for them was that
he could do nothing about his doubts. And she could do nothing about her fear
that with his doubts he was ruling out for them the possibility of eternal
happiness in the afterlife.
GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes. He is Charles Darwinâs great, great grandson
and author of the book âCreation: The True Story of Charles Darwin.â Weâll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Randal Keynes and he is the great, great grandson of Charles
Darwin. Weâre talking about his book, âCreation: The True Story of Charles
Darwin.â That book has been adapted into a movie that stars Paul Bettany as
Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Emma. You know, youâre in the United
States right now. As we record this youâve been here a few days, youâve been
talking about the book, youâve been taking questions from people. I think
thereâs a different - I think that England, where youâre from, is kind of
different than the United States in the sense that in the United States thereâs
a very strong Christian creationism movement that is very uncomfortable with
Darwinâs theory of evolution.
Some people donât even want it taught in the schools. So Iâm wondering, are
you, do you feel like you have to be on our guard when youâre in the United
States talking about Darwin? Is it different for you to talk about Darwin here
than it is in England?
Mr. KEYNES: It is very different because of the charge that these issues have
from the fierceness of the argument in the last 10 years, I think. Iâm not sure
that it was so fierce before. I think itâs a development of the very recent
past. Itâs different. Iâm not worried by it because so many other people see
the sense and value of Darwinâs ideas. Itâs no surprise - it should be no
surprise that many people have difficulty with the implications of the theory.
And I am happy that the argument continues. Iâm happy that people argue against
it as long as there are people arguing for it in the ways that I think Darwin
would have felt were the right ways.
GROSS: Are you amazed when you research Darwinâs life and how he was able to
come up with the theory of evolution not knowing so much of the science that
has subsequently, you know, been discovered? I mean, we know about DNA now. But
he didnât know about that. So are you amazed that everything that Darwin didnât
Mr. KEYNES: Yes. It is quite extraordinary. This point about how he produced,
he developed the whole theory and offered it to the world without knowing,
without understanding an absolutely key part of the modern day account of the
theory, which is the mechanism of inheritance and how inheritance works so that
traits that have advantages through natural selection survive and develop. It
shows, I think, extraordinary boldness on his part. He was so confident from
the other evidence that there must be something to this theory that he offered
it without this piece in the jigsaw - a theory of how inheritance worked.
And itâs just wonderful to see how with Mendelian genetics and then with
molecular biology, the theory has been strengthened and strengthened and
strengthened and strengthened by the understanding that weâve gained of this
GROSS: Randal Keynes, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. KEYNES: Thank you.
GROSS: Randal Keynes is the author of âCreation: The True Story of Charles
Darwin,â which has been adapted into a new film called âCreation,â starring
Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.
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A Sensitive Subject: Harry Reidâs Language On Race
The media has spent the last few weeks chewing over the revelation in the book
âGame Changeâ that Senator Harry Reid said privately that Barack Obama would be
acceptable to the electorate because he was light-skinned and had no Negro
dialect unless he wanted to have one. According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg,
the responses to Reidâs remarks say a lot more about American racial attitudes
than Reid himself did.
GEOFF NUNBERG: Just about everybody thought Harry Reid needed to apologize,
including Reid himself, but why? You couldnât fault the actual content of the
remark, that an African-American presidential candidate has a better chance of
being elected if he doesnât look or sound too black. That may be a deplorable
reality, but itâs not controversial. Even George Will gave Reid a pass. As he
put it on ABCâs âThis Week,â at long last Harry Reid has said something that no
one can disagree with and he gets in trouble for it.
But according to Liz Cheney, it still shouldnât have been said. She shot back
at Will: Give me a break, George. I mean, talking about the color of the
presidentâs skin; itâs not the way that people that I know speak to each other.
Actually, I can believe that about Cheneyâs circle. There are a lot of people
nowadays who think of skin color as like a piece of lettuce caught in
somebodyâs teeth. You should really try not to see it, and if you do, itâs
unseemly to bring it up. Reidâs use of Negro stirred a similar sense of unease.
In the Washington Post, Ezra Klein called it weird and others went with
awkward, unfortunate or dumb.
President Obama called it inartful, which was a deft way of implying that the
lapse was purely stylistic. And some called it a racist slur, confusing
outmoded with outrageous. But itâs never been that. If Negro really were a
slur, many older blacks wouldnât still be claiming it as their primary racial
identification and whites wouldnât feel so comfortable about repeating it.
Still, the word does have what the African-American linguist John McWhorter
called a tangy backwards flavor. And it can certainly be tinged with sarcasm,
depending who is using it.
Spike Lee coined the term magical Negro as a dig at the condescending racial
stereotypes in Hollywood films. And the tang was a little more pungent when
Rush Limbaugh was playing a record of a white Al Sharpton imitator singing a
song called âBarack, the Magic Negroâ during the 2008 campaign. But in Reidâs
mouth, Negro wasnât condescending or contemptuous, just clueless. To be fair,
Reid may not use the word except in talking about language. His reference to
Negro dialect may have been a garbled version of nonstandard Negro English, the
term scholars were using for black English until well into the 1970s.
And the man isn't exactly styling. If he hasnât changed his racial vocabulary
since Jimmy Carter was president, he hasnât changed his eyeglass frames either.
But over a quarter century in Congress, he probably should have gotten out a
little more. But even if we couldnât agree about its severity, Reidâs offense
clearly fell under the capacious heading of racial insensitivity. That phrase
was introduced in the 1970s to broaden the range of conversational infractions.
Even if you werenât an unregenerate Archie Bunker-style bigot, you could still
be held accountable for merely being obtuse about race. But the phrase also
turned out to be a useful way of enabling out-and-out racism to cop to a lesser
In fact, journalists almost never describe any remark as racist anymore. For
The New York Times, there was racial insensitivity in Don Imusâs reference to
nappy-headed hos and the L.A. Times heard it in Michael Richardsâ nightclub
And back in September, National Reviewâs Jonah Goldberg conceded that there was
some racial insensitivity in a few of the signs at the Tea Party protests,
which included slogans like, save white America and depictions of Obama as a
witch doctor with a bone through his nose. The implication was presumably that
those protesters could have tried to express themselves more artfully.
As the media use the term, racial insensitivity, blurs the distinction between
one N-word and another, or between Michael Steeleâs use of honest Injun and
Trent Lottâs suggestion that the country would have had fewer problems if we
had elected a segregationist as president in 1948. Whether those have offenses
are venial or mortal, maligned or merely thoughtless, by the time they get to
YouTube, theyâre all just gaucheries and gaffes, and they all require the same
Yet almost nobody called Reid to task on the one item that really did betray a
deep-seated social prejudice, that word dialect. Of course, as linguists use
the word, everybody speaks one dialect or another: Tracy Morgan and Patrick
Stewart, Loretta Lynn and Diane Sawyer.
But most people reserve the word dialect for varieties of language that are
seen as expressive and colorful, but illogical and illiterate. Linguists have
been pointing out for a very long time that those varieties all turn out to
have a complicated and systematic structure of their own. But itâs hard not to
hear them through stereotypes of race and class.
Itâs striking how many of the things people say in public about Black English
are the same things theyâd no longer allow themselves to say about the people
who speak it â itâs slovenly, lazy, ignorant, stupid, broken. Those stereotypes
havenât really disappeared from public life, theyâve just been repurposed as
attitudes about language.
Everybody likes to invoke Martin Luther Kingâs dream of a nation where no one
is judged by the color of his skin, but most people are fine with judging
somebody by the shape of his vowels.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School Of Information at
the University of California at Berkeley.
Geoff recently sent me a CD by a country singer he really likes, who Iâd never
heard of, but Iâm sure that I know him now. He is Vern Gosdin, who died last
year. So, now I want to play a track for you. This is âChiseled In Stone.â
(Soundbite of song, âChiseled In Stoneâ)
Mr. VERN GODSIN (Singer): (Singing) You ran crying to the bedroom, I ran off to
the bar. Another piece of heaven gone to hell. The words we spoke in anger just
tore my world apart. And I sat there feeling sorry for myself. Then that old
man sat down beside me and looked me in the eye, and he said, son, I know what
youâre going through. You ought to get down on your knees and thank your lucky
stars that you got someone to go home to.
You donât know about lonely, or how long nights can be, till you lived through
the story thatâs still living in me. And you donât know about sadness till you
faced life alone. You donât know about lonely, 'til it's chiseled in stone.
GROSS: Thatâs Vern Godsin.
Coming up, our critic-at-large John Powers recommends a TV series he thinks you
may not even be aware of. This is FRESH AIR.
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âBurn Noticeâ: A Refreshingly Retro Spy Caper
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our critic-at-large John Powers spend his time watching lots of movies and
reading lots of books, but sometimes he just wants to veg out in front of the
TV. And thatâs where he will be tonight when âBurn Noticeâ returns on the USA
JOHN POWERS: You often hear the â50s called the Golden Age of Television. If
so, weâre deep into the Platinum Age. There have never been more sophisticated
shows, from ambitious dramas like âMad Men,â âBreaking Bad,â and âBig Loveâ to
delirious conceptual series such as â24,â âLostâ and âFlash-Forward.â But itâs
also a very good period for disposable TV shows of the kind I grew up with â
you know, the ones that you turn on when youâre tired and that nobody ever
writes op-ed pieces about. My favorite is âBurn Notice,â a jaunty, self-
consciously retro spying-and-caper series with roots in âThe Rockford Filesâ
and âMission: Impossible.â
Jeffrey Donovan stars as Michael Westen, a CIA man whoâs been bounced from the
agency and winds up in his hometown of Miami. There he hooks up with a crew of
sidekicks: his gun-happy girlfriend, Fiona, thatâs Gabrielle Anwar; a beer-
guzzling ex-spook, Sam Axe, amiably played by Bruce Campbell, who you might
remember from Sam Raimiâs âEvil Deadâ movies. And then thereâs his mother,
Madeline, a hard-smoking hypochondriac played with blowsy brio by Sharon Gless,
who sometimes helps out when not giving Michael grief for getting into trouble.
Heâs constantly doing just that. You see, Michael loved being a spy â he
thought he was doing good â and heâs eager to get back into the Company. But as
he struggles to do this, he keeps afloat by helping innocent people with their
problems. Every week, he and his pals run ops against extortionists or
murderers or kidnappers from the Russian mob. In the new episode, for instance,
he helps a woman threatened by insurance fraudsters by pretending to be a
tobacco-chewing hot-rodder from the Tarheel State. Itâs part of the showâs
charm, that as Michael does his thing, he is constantly talking to us,
explaining the ins and outs of spy craft. Here, heâs just received a mysterious
message, inviting him to meet somebody up in a hotel room.
(Soundbite of TV Series, âBurn Noticeâ)
Mr. JEFFREY DONOVAN (Actor): (As Michael Westen) In the world of espionage,
there are lot of ways to introduce yourself. You can use official channels, you
can use a cover ID, you can use encrypted communication - whatever the method
that first contact tells you a lot about a person.
(Soundbite of explosion)
Mr. DONOVAN: (As Michael Westen) And specially when someone introduces himself
like fire bombing a hotel room.
POWERS: âBurn Noticeâ was created by Matt Nix, whoâs clearly wised-up about old
TV. In this episode, for example, Michaelâs mom gets involved with a character
played by Tyne Daly, making for a nostalgic reunion of âCagney & Lacey.â Like
most show runners on the USA network, Nix keeps things fast and light, with
lots of shots of sun-spanked Miami, lots of chicks in bikinis, and lots of
jokey little intertitles.
Of course, for a show like this to succeed, you need a hero you like spending
time with â someone like Jim Rockford or Thomas Magnum â played by an actor you
enjoy. While the slim, charismatic Donovan doesnât reach the transcendent
stature of James Garner â perhaps the greatest TV actor of all time â heâs
really fun to watch. Heâs got terrific energy, a nice comic deadpan, and he
doesnât overplay quirks like Michaelâs fondness for yogurt. Heâs constantly
doing accents, and though nobody would confuse his ear with Meryl Streepâs,
heâs good enough to keep the action perking right along.
For all its old-school charm, though, âBurn Noticeâ is not a pure throwback.
Itâs far less shambling than âThe Rockford Filesâ â shows today just have to
move faster â and itâs clearly been influenced by todayâs long-form TV dramas.
Even as each episode is self-contained, each season has an arc. Last yearâs had
a very clever plotline in which Michael got ensnared by a slippery business
agent â the guy managed star spies as if they were actors or quarterbacks. The
current run begins with Michael being pursued by the mystery man who torched
that hotel room.
Now, I should warn you, the first time you watch âBurn Noticeâ, you wonât be
wowed. I wasnât. The showâs designed not to dazzle you, but to grow on you â
and it does. Oddly enough, it even seems to be growing on itself. Since the
show began in June 2007, itâs started to deepen, so that Michael must directly
confront the question of whether itâs okay to hurt innocent people to help a
bigger cause. The show keeps getting better and more ambitious.
Yet strangely enough, I hope it doesnât get too much better. The real charm of
âBurn Noticeâ is that it entertains you without trying to be some sort of
stylistic touchstone, rumination on CIA morality, or grand statement about the
zeitgeist. In fact, what makes the show great is that, like the classic shows
of the past, itâs content to simply be good.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIRâs critic at large, film critic for Vogue and
writes the âAbsolute Powersâ column for Vogue.com. You can download Podcasts of
our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at
(Soundbite of music)
Iâm Terry Gross.
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