DATE September 26, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: F.X. Toole discusses his collection of short stories
and his time in the ring as a cut man
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
F.X. Toole learned to box when he was in his late 40s. It was too late to
make it as a boxer, but he stayed in that world as a cut man. In between
rounds, the cut man stops his boxer's bleeding so that he can get back in
ring. Now at the age of 70, Toole has a new collection of short stories
called "Rope Burns." The review in the LA Times described it as a book of
chillingly authentic short stories about fighters and fighting written from
far inside as you can get. Although Toole has a trunkful of novels, stories
and plays, this is his first published book. He didn't want his boxing
friends to know that he was writing stories set in their world, so he used
pen name F.X. Toole, but the good reviews have blown his cover. His real
is Jerry Boyd(ph). Let's start with a reading from the first story in "Rope
Burns," which is about a cut man.
Mr. F.X. TOOLE ("Rope Burns"): `I stop blood. I stop it between rounds for
fighters so they can stay in the fight. Blood ruins some boys. It was that
way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he'd see his own
blood and fall apart. I'm not the one who decides when to stop the fight
I don't stitch up cuts once the fight's over, and it's not my job to
hospitalize a boy for brain damage. My job is to stop blood so the fighter
can see enough to keep on fighting. I do that, maybe I save a boy's title.
do that one thing and I'm worth every cent they pay me. I stop the blood
save the fight, the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy.
`But you can't always stop it. Fight guys know this. If the cut's too deep
or wide or maybe you've got a severed vein down in there, the blood keeps
coming. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to stop the blood, maybe
The boy's heart is pumping so hard or he cuts more. Once you get the
coagulant in there, sometimes it takes another shot from the opponent right
the cut itself to drive the blood far enough from the area so the stuff
using can start to work. What I'm saying is there are all kinds of
combinations you come up against down in the different layers of meat. When
good cut man stays ahead of the combinations, he can stop most cuts, but not
GROSS: And that's F.X. Toole reading from his new collection of short
stories, "Rope Burns." Let's talk a little bit more about what you do as a
cut man. What are some of the medicines that you have to stop bleeding?
Mr. TOOLE: Well, there's a lot of stuff that's illegal, but most of the
you're using--when I say `most of the time,' I'm generalizing, but you use
Adrenalin One-1,000(ph). It's a topical and it's a vasoconstrictor, not the
kind you inject. Then there's Thrombin, which is a coagulant rather than a
vasoconstrictor. There's stuff called Ativan. Much of this stuff is used
GROSS: What's your training like to do this? Do you study medicine at all
did you just study with another cutter?
Mr. TOOLE: You study with other guys. You pick their brains. You have to
remember that what you're working on is a restricted area, and the tissue's
not very deep, OK? It's not as if you're trying to work on someone who's
suffering a stab wound in the liver. It's shallow tissue. During a fight,
sometimes you think you're looking down into a volcano, but, you know,
obviously not the case. So you're working on the face primarily--the
forehead, the scalp maybe. And so you learn how to stop that blood. You
don't learn how to deal with stab wounds.
GROSS: Tell me more about what goes on in the corner during the period
between rounds if the fighter is tired and he's bleeding. Who's paying
attention to him? What's everybody doing? Who's competing for his time
Mr. TOOLE: Well, what you do is you get him breathing deeply from the
diaphragm, number one, and you water him down. You put ice packs on him and
you get him breathing, breathing, breathing. Now if he's cut, you've got to
do all of that and get the blood stopped at the same time, but the fighter
completely focused on you and he trusts you. He's put his life in your
which is one of the reasons I'm so careful about what I do with these kids.
And so he's focused on you, and he's learned through the whole training
process to listen to you while the crowd is roaring. He will hear your
above them all if you shout instructions up to him. But now he's cut and
he's tired. You get him breathing. You get him breathing. You get him
breathing. You cool him down. And you'll be surprised how someone in good
condition, and I'm speaking cardiovascular now, will revive in just that
Now if he's terribly hurt, you know, I've called fights off, but that's the
last resort. You don't want to do that because, again, his future is in
hands, but you don't want to make a decision to make his future his past
GROSS: As the cut man, it's your job to stop the blood when your boxer's
bleeding, and I'm wondering how the whole idea of bleeding has changed in
Mr. TOOLE: Well, you know, when the HIV really hit and AIDS was, you know,
rampant and it first, you know, got the publicity it did--What?--10 years or
so ago, first of all, we were instructed to wear rubber gloves. The
at that time and since have had to take AIDS tests, so at that time, it was
much bigger problem than it is today. Now I don't even think they hand out
rubber gloves anymore because, you know, the AIDS test comes along and it's
yesterday. You follow? And so they know whether or not these guys are
There was a heck of a heavyweight here not too long ago whose test proved
positive for AIDS. And here was a big monster of a guy. The odds are he
it using steroids, because he was a tall, thin kid at one time and, you
two years later, he's a monster heavyweight.
GROSS: How would you get AIDS by using steroids?
Mr. TOOLE: The needle.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, I see. Got it. Got it.
Mr. TOOLE: So these guys might be in the gym and say, `Here, you use the
needle, I'll use the needle, you use the needle.' You know, people often
quite foolish in terms of what they do.
GROSS: What are the worst injuries you've seen your fighters sustain?
Mr. TOOLE: Basically the worst that I've seen are cuts around the eyes, and
then another things happens that heals rather quickly. Your fighter has to
take a urine test after a fight, if it's a big fight, if he's going to get
paid. In other words, if he's been using drugs, he will not get paid for
fight. And if he wins, he will be disqualified. But sometimes when they
urinate, the urine comes out the color of port wine. That's another
GROSS: Because of the blood?
Mr. TOOLE: It's pure blood from the kidneys.
GROSS: Huh. You know the expression `punch drunk,' where somebody seems to
have lost some of their senses, some of their capacity to think and speak
because they've been knocked around too much.
Mr. TOOLE: Sure.
GROSS: Do you see boxers who actually have that condition?
Mr. TOOLE: Sure. Yes. I work with one right now who (nasally) talks like
this. He talks through his nose, and he walks with a limp and you have to
say, `What? What did you say? What?' (Normal) Now why did that happen?
That happened because he was a great young fighter who never got into shape.
He tells a great story. He says he prayed before every fight. He said,
please let me get through this fight and I promise next fight I'll be in
shape.' And he said (nasally), `And I never got in shape.' (Normal) So he
fought too long. He got hit too much. One of the reasons he's talking that
way is because his nose is broken, it goes off at an angle, but, indeed,
there's an example. And you know what? He has no regrets whatsoever.
joke about the whole show.
GROSS: In your book, you write, `Boxing is an unnatural act. Everything in
boxing is backwards to life. Instead of running from pain, which is the
natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it.' You've boxed as well as
worked as a cut man. What's it like to try to get over those natural
instincts and replace them with boxing instincts?
Mr. TOOLE: Well, I boxed, but you have to understand my boxing began when I
was 48. And I sparred in the gym. I worked out in the gym. I did what we
call worked. And I didn't do it as long as I would have, and you also, if
can imagine--I wear glasses, so when I was sparring, I was throwing punches
shadows. So I probably took more shots than I would have.
What happens to you is you become focused on the idea of landing your shots
the other guy, of doing damage to your opponent. And so you take shots and
you have to understand that you're in what, you know, Hemingway called `hot
blood.' And so the shots don't hurt you as much while you're excited
adrenaline is part of the formula. It's later on that fighters, you know,
a day or so afterwards will be holding their ribs or, you know, you'll see
fighters wearing dark glasses for a couple days, that sort of thing.
GROSS: I imagine it was a little harder for you to take blows or heal from
wounds in your late 40s.
Mr. TOOLE: Oh, sure. And I had teeth cracked. I had my nose broken
but I had it broken again. And I would have kept on boxing. I had to quit
because I developed a jaw problem, and I was told that I had to wear braces.
So you can't box and wear braces. So that's a regret that I have but,
nonetheless, a necessary thing for me to have done. Along the way, I found
that I was able to do this stuff. I was able to focus. I was able to
remember the mechanics--first of all, do the mechanics, the mechanics for
mind. Now, you know, how do you hit this other guy? In a street fight, you
can rush up and grab someone by the shirt, by the throat, by the neck, by
head, trip him, knock him down, kick him and all of that good stuff, but in
the ring, it's very hard to hit an opponent who's not going to stand there
fight you back. If he just moves, you're probably not going to be able to
much more than tap him on the shoulder.
So, you know, I learned how to do all of this stuff, how to cut off the
how to throw punches correctly, how to protect myself, and so, you know, it
became a way of life for me to the degree that I actually quit writing. I
said, `Why am I ruining my life writing when I can do this other thing? I
participate in it every day instead of being an outsider, instead of being,
you know, someone howling in the woods for all those years.' So writing
became unimportant to me, and I said, `Forget it. I'm not going to hurt
that anymore.' So I know about hurt outside of the ring as well as inside
GROSS: You're talking about the hurt of rejection?
Mr. TOOLE: Absolutely. That would destroy me. It would just put me flat
GROSS: That hurts more than the broken nose?
Mr. TOOLE: Oh, absolutely. No comparison. I'd take a broken nose any old
day. To sit there, you know, with that brown envelope in your lap and your
head in your hands and you say to yourself, `Who am I kidding? I'm no good.
If I was any good, somebody would have bought this. I'm just kidding
I have wasted my life. I've thrown it away. I thought it was the muse who
kissed me, who tapped me on the shoulder and it was a whore that did. And
I've been drained of all my resources. Here I am a complete fool. Why am I
doing this? I've just kidded myself.' And I'd go through that and then
suddenly--not suddenly, but slowly I'd get back to my feet, suddenly another
story would play before my eyes, and I'd be back at it again.
GROSS: My guest is F.X. Toole. He has a new collection of boxing short
stories called "Rope Burns." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is F.X. Toole and he's a cut
man--that is, he's in the corner of the ring during a boxing match and it's
his job to stop the bleeding of his boxer. He's written his first
of short stories. It's called "Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner."
Now I know as a young man, you studied acting with Sanford Meisner, the
acting teacher at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
Mr. TOOLE: Yes.
GROSS: You had written plays that weren't produced, but you wrote them.
connection between boxing and theater?
Mr. TOOLE: Yeah, there's a lot of performance in boxing. In fact, when I
fight movies and they try to train fighters to perform like fighters, it
usually doesn't work. Oftentimes, they don't take enough time, because it
takes a long time to learn how to do this stuff. And so I would say that
probably should take fighters and train them to be actors. It would
shorten the process, but, indeed, there's a lot of showbiz in the game. And
the audience is there to be entertained. You entertain them differently
say, in the theater, and yet, the drama is there. It's real drama. It's
going on right before their eyes. And all sorts of things are being tested
and challenged throughout the course of X number of rounds. And the
when they see it and see that it's done well, absolutely becomes enchanted
with the activity and are transported.
GROSS: Of course, in boxing, it's not stage blood, it's real blood.
Mr. TOOLE: It's the real deal.
GROSS: And you like that?
Mr. TOOLE: Sure.
GROSS: Why do you prefer real blood to stage blood?
Mr.-TOOLE: Well, because it's real. You know, I was a bullfighter and I
gored three times, and so for me to see blood pumping out is not that big a
deal. You know, I had won--you know, I was gored in the bladder, I was
in my left leg a couple of times. One of the times there were three
trajectories that were as long as your hand, and at the time, I weighed
probably 140 pounds. I'm 6' tall, so you can imagine how thin my leg was.
It's part of the territory. It's the price of doing business. It's--How
shall I say?--it's being there at the time when the greatest challenge is
and then it's also being there when that challenge is met in a positive or a
negative way. And so, again, it's real drama. It's not playing. It's not,
`Well, I can go home after the theater or go to the local bar and have a few
pops and forget about it.' This is stuff that you take with you for the
of your life. And that's what I see life as, a series of experiences that
should be lived, not nullified, not anesthetized with drugs, etc.
GROSS: What about street fighting? Were you ever into that? I mean, it's
not in an arena, but there's certainly a lot of theatrics in a lot of street
fighting and a lot of posturing as well.
Mr. TOOLE: Well, I've been in a few street fights. When I was 49 or so,
something like that, I was in a street fight and I had part of my right ear
bitten off, as a matter of fact, but my opponent was about to go blind and
only thing that saved him was his girlfriend pulling me off of him. So
fights are nasty and ugly and the goal is to do maximum damage in a minimal
amount of time. And, you know, you've got, you know, your adversary down
you want to make sure he cannot get up, and if he does get up, he's never
going to want to come looking for you again. In boxing, winner, looser,
go across the ring and they embrace and say, `Good fight,' and the looser
says, `Well, he was a better man today.' If he has talent and ability and
thing and another, that may well be the case. So he'll come back and fight
another day. Street fights you don't ordinarily fight the second or third
fourth or 20th time afterwards.
GROSS: Who was the first person who read one of your stories and said, `I'm
going to publish this'?
Mr. TOOLE: It was Howard Junker, God bless him, at a literary magazine out
San Francisco called Zyzzyva--Z-Y-Z-Z-Y-V-A. And one day I got a phone call
and he introduced himself and he said, `This is a terrific story. I want to
publish it.' And I said, `You're kidding.' And he said, `No, no. I want
do it.' And we chatted a moment and I think, for the first time in my life,
used the word `flabbergasted,' because I--really, I've never used that word
before, because I usually have plenty to say, right? But I just could not
believe it. It was--at that moment, I was vindicated, if you will. At that
moment, I was a successful writer.
GROSS: Had you sent him the story?
Mr. TOOLE: I'd sent him the story through the mail like I always have. I
never put any blurb about myself. I just submit the story. And I was
very selfish about writing. If I was going to have any success in writing
be published at all, I wanted to be absolutely on the merit of the work as
read by someone anonymous reading an anonymous writer. And that's what
happened, finally, after 40 years.
GROSS: You're somebody who, in a way, starts things or accomplishes things
late in life. You know, you started boxing at the age of 48. You're about
now? Is that right?
Mr. TOOLE: Seventy, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And your first book has just been published. This is
you've wanted your whole life. What's it like to get something that you've
always wanted, but get it at the age of 70, when, you know, you're not
ahead at your whole life any longer?
Mr. TOOLE: Well, it's sweet indeed. I will also tell you that if this had
happened to me at 35, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation,
because I was, let's say, something of a wild man. I would probably have
destroyed myself along the way because, given--I'm hoping to make some money
on this, but let's assume that I would have made some money. I would have
probably squandered it and squandered everything else along with it because
would have wanted to push the envelope on principle but also in terms of
understanding the world and, if nothing else, to have more things to write
about. So it's probably the best thing that could have happened to me
individually. I look around and I see so many young people who get success
early on fold in the stretch, if you will, and destroy themselves and
a lot of people around them. And what a great tragedy that is, because I
think many of them end up with success that they don't feel they've earned.
I've earned every bit of it. However much I get, I will have earned it and
don't say that as some kind of a nut puffing myself up. I'm just saying, `I
paid my dues. Here it is. Thank God it's here, and I'm going to protect it
and nurture it to the best of my ability.'
GROSS: Have you saved all your earlier writing and do you like some of that
Mr. TOOLE: Some of it I do. I will tell you the first thing I really wrote
seriously was a bullfight novel after I had been blown out of the game and I
returned to California, to Los Angeles, and I was working in the Good Humor
ice cream factory, the swing shift. I was climbing down in the stainless
steel vaults with--vats with live steam, and go home at midnight, 1 in the
morning, my wife and baby were asleep. I was still charged up and some way
another I had the idea that I wanted to write a bullfight novel, so I did
I still have it. It's wrapped up in the brown paper, you know, and the
that I sent it to myself. I think the date is February something in 1958.
I'm terrified to open those pages, to go back and read how terrible it must
be. On the other hand, there's some great material in there, OK? And if I
live long enough, maybe I can go back and use some of that.
GROSS: Well, F.X. Toole, Jerry Boyd, I want to thank you very much for
talking with us.
Mr. TOOLE: It's been a great delight to be with you.
GROSS: F.X. Toole is a cut man and writer. His new book is a collection of
short stories called "Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner." F.X. Toole is
pen name. The writer's real name is Jerry Boyd.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Michael Bellesiles talks about the popular beliefs and
myths surrounding early gun culture in America
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR from NPR News. I'm Terry Gross.
The debate over guns in America often leads back to discussions of early
American history and the importance of the gun in frontier culture. But
of the popular beliefs about early gun culture have more to do with myth
history, according to historian Michael Bellesiles. He's the author of the
new book, "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." He's a
professor at Emory University, where he founded the Center for the Study of
Violence. He says that it's a myth that in colonial times most men
their homes with guns. The guns of the period were muskets, and muskets
weren't easy to use.
Professor MICHAEL BELLESISLES (Emory University): Basically, to start with,
they were big, they were clumsy, they were expensive. They were difficult
maintain. They had to be cleaned regularly because they were made out of
iron, otherwise they would rust. It took time to learn how to use one,
required a great deal of effort to practice with it. And to maintain the
musket was also expensive, because powder and shot all had to be imported
Europe, as was the musket itself. No one in America made more than a couple
muskets a year, and those few people who did make muskets used, again,
European parts. They were actually assembling them.
GROSS: Now you say not only didn't most colonials have guns, there weren't
enough guns for the militias.
Prof. BELLESILES: Yeah. That was, for me, the most surprising aspect of my
research, looking back in the 17th and 18th century. The English government
wanted to control the access of firearms in the British North American
colonies, because they, of course, were suspicious of the use of these
by common people. They had a problem, though, in their colonies in that
had to rely on those common people occasionally to fight their wars for
So they would ship arms to the governments of the British North American
colonies, and those governments would store the firearms in central
repositories to be used only in emergency situations. But again, they were
nowhere near sufficient to arm even half the militia in the most vital
of the Seven Years' War.
GROSS: So tell me, does that shed a different light on the Second
saying that--you know, about the right to a well-armed militia?
Prof. BELLESILES: Well, it can be read that way. As near as I can tell,
historical context of the Second Amendment had two components. One was the
experience of the American Revolution. Those people who wrote and improved
the Second Amendment understood, remembered, in most cases, that the
had been grotesquely under-armed and very unprepared for a long war, which
what they had, of course--it lasted eight years. And their experience had
been if it had not been for France and the Netherlands supplying 85 percent
their firearms, with most of the rest coming from the English government
itself, there was no way they would have won their independence. So that
one very important context. That's why the Constitution of the United
before the Second Amendment, gave Congress a mandate to arm, train and
regulate the militia.
Now the second context is that the anti-Federalists, the opponents of the
Constitution, feared that that mandate within the Constitution could lead to
Congress refusing to arm the militia, and they understood that if Congress
didn't arm the militia, the militia was largely unarmed, because people
own that many guns. So Madison--and he was very explicit about this when he
introduced the Second Amendment to the House of Representatives--Madison
stated that he was responding to those fears, which he thought were
ungrounded, of the anti-Federalists, by guaranteeing that no action of
Congress would interfere with the states' arming of their own militia. So I
believe that's the historical context of the Second Amendment.
GROSS: And you think that this context has to do, in part, with the fact
there weren't enough arms to go around?
Prof. BELLESILES: I think that's exactly right. And the actions of the
federal government, immediately after the Second Amendment was passed, I
believe uphold that view, because the Congress immediately took two key
in opposite directions. On one hand, they wanted to arm the militia, so
established national gun manufactories at Springfield and Harpers Ferry.
second thing they did is they passed legislation to control the flow of
firearms, the sale and possession of firearms, to those they perceived as
dangerous--in this context, Indians and slaves.
GROSS: You know, I think when we're talking about a well-regulated militia,
that the word `militia' in the 1700s and the meaning of the word now has
changed. What did `militia' mean at the time?
Prof. BELLESILES: The meaning of the militia has changed dramatically. In
the 18th century, militia was a very carefully regulated local organization
based on the community, whether that was a town or a county, depending on
which colony or state you were in. And the membership was specifically
defined by each legislature, and it was usually very explicitly limited to
white Protestant adult males between certain ages who had demonstrated
to the state, and at different times, loyalty oaths were required for
in the militia.
All of this changed dramatically in 1909. The militia had largely died out
an institution in the United States as early as the 1820s, and in the early
20th century, there was an effort to revive the militia on a large scale to
prepare Americans for their new global responsibilities. Theodore Roosevelt
was a major proponent of this change, and it led to the--what's called the
Dick Act of 1909, which reconstituted the traditional militia as the
Guard. And to this day, of course, the militia of the United States is the
National Guard, so it is now very much a national institution rather than a
GROSS: So the idea of a well-regulated militia and people having arms for
that would be the equivalent now of people having arms who are in the
Prof. BELLESILES: Yes. That's exactly correct. Another, of course, key
misunderstanding of the militia, which we can see in some of the private
militia companies organized in our own times, is that the militia must
be regulated by the state. That is an ancient understanding that goes back
the 14th century in England, and has been maintained in the United States
throughout its history.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Bellesiles. He's the author of the new book
"Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." He's a professor
history at Emory University in Atlanta.
You write in your book that until the mid-1800s the American public seemed
kind of uninterested in guns. What did you go through to come to that
conclusion? What kind of, like, records and books and other things?
Prof. BELLESILES: I went through every kind of record I could lay my hands
that had anything to do with firearms or public perceptions of firearms. I
looked in legal records, probate records, court records as in civil cases,
criminal prosecutions, newspapers, magazines, business records, personal
account books, letters, diaries, travel accounts.
Supposedly, everyone owned firearms, according to the standard histories in
field, and everyone cared deeply about those guns, that it was part of their
identification. But, in fact, there are no pamphlets or books published on
firearms prior to the American Revolution, and until the 1830s there were
a handful of such pamphlets on guns published. And in addition, the
newspapers were surprisingly quiet on firearms, until the 1830s.
GROSS: To me, growing up with Westerns on movies and TV, I always assumed
that everyone in the West had a gun, and that the gun really helped settle
West. Is that truth or fiction?
Prof. BELLESILES: I grew up with exactly the same image, and from exactly
the same source, Western movies, and I think that, in fact, has been the
influential historical record. Historians who have looked back into the
19th century, looking at the period we call the Wild West, have found that
majority of settlers did not own firearms, largely because they were not
necessary. Most of the settlers in the West were farmers or workers,
something we tend to forget. The vast majority of men living in the West
were, in fact, workers, working in mines and as hired labor on farms, and
had no need for guns.
GROSS: So from what I get out of your book, the real turning point in the
history of the gun in America is in the mid--like in the 1840s when Colt
starts to manufacture a pistol.
Prof. BELLESILES: I think that's exactly correct. Samuel Colt was a
not only of technological development, but also of marketing. Samuel Colt
appreciated that the gun did carry a certain mystique among the upper class,
that it was associated closely with the elite way of life. This is, again,
tradition that goes back to medieval England, that the firearm was something
that was owned only by members of the elite. Now this was no longer the
in America, but nonetheless, it was associated with the upper classes, and
he appealed to this taste in his firearms by making them objects of real
He developed a method by which he could engrave every gun he produced with
scenes of nature, with scenes of well-to-do people hunting in forests, but
perhaps most significantly, with scenes of individual men defending their
families against savages and against burglars and robbers. So adding to the
firearm this perception that it was absolutely necessary for personal
self-defense. And his advertisements that he put in newspapers and
throughout the United States, emphasized again and again that the individual
man must own a gun in order to protect his family.
GROSS: Samuel Colt's patent for his pistol ran out in 1857, so then other
manufacturers started making pistols, too. So now you have a real
proliferation of guns in America. And then just a few years later you have
the American Civil War, which you also consider a real turning point in gun
culture in the US. You say the Civil War armed the American people.
what you mean.
Prof. BELLESILES: Well, most American soldiers went into training in the
Civil War on both sides, North and South, with very little familiarity with
firearms. Those who were responsible for training the soldiers reported
the majority of those troops had never even held a gun of any time prior to
enlistment. Their first necessary step was, therefore, to train their
soldiers in the use of firearms. This training had an enormous impact in
long term because, after all, more than two and a half million Americans
served during the Civil War. In addition, the gun manufacturers found the
Civil War a major opportunity to increase levels of production. Samuel Colt
had figured out, in the 1850s, how to produce tens of thousands of guns for
the first time, but he didn't have the market to justify that level of
production. So, for instance, in 1860, in the entire United States, 50,000
firearms were made, which was the highest level of gun production up until
that point. But by 1864, American gun makers were able to produce one
firearms a year. So this level of production, I think, had enormous
consequence, as did the training of so many American men in the use of
And I believe also that training men to kill one another and to see that as
justified and necessary action for the preservation of liberty in the United
States had an enormous psychological impact on Americans. It meant that the
gun was a perfectly legitimate means of conflict resolution.
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Bellesiles. His book is called
America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is historian Michael Bellesiles, author of the new book
"Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture."
Now correct me if I'm wrong. After the Revolutionary War, the government
collected all of the guns that were used...
Prof. BELLESILES: That's correct.
GROSS: ...to arm the militias. What happened to the guns after the Civil
Prof. BELLESILES: The exact opposite. After the American Revolution, the
government thought it was wisest to control those firearms that had been
to the United States by the Netherlands and France, or taken from the
in the field of battle, and so they collected them all into armories around
the United States. After the Civil War, the government reasoned the exact
opposite; that most of these firearms were already outdated because of the
development of rapid-fire guns and, therefore, it was perfectly appropriate
and much simpler and cheaper to simply allow troops to take their guns home.
And that's exactly what the United States Congress allowed.
GROSS: And what impact do you think that action had on gun culture?
Prof. BELLESILES: I think it armed the American public. Guns appeared for
the first time in nearly every home and they became a permanent part of
GROSS: There was still a frontier culture after the Civil War. Was that
culture a more gun-oriented culture after the war?
Prof. BELLESILES: Absolutely. Prior to the Civil War, while guns were
present in the West, there really were not that many firearms available.
one of the major limitations, of course, was the absence of gun dealers,
except for in San Francisco and Los Angeles. After the Civil War, not only
was there a steady flow of firearms West, as the settlers brought their guns
with them from service in the Civil War, but also gun dealers opened shops
throughout the western territories. Even in the smallest communities, the
smallest towns would find themselves with gun dealers selling very cheap
firearms. And that, of course, is one of the remarkable shifts in the gun
culture of America. Prior to the Civil War, a gun was the equivalent to a
month's wages. It had been the equivalent of half a year's wages for a
skilled artisan back in the 18th century. After the Civil War, guns were
available for as cheap as $5, which was equal to one day's wages for an
GROSS: So when you went back and looked at newspaper or magazine articles
probate records and court records after the Civil War, did you see a lot
Prof. BELLESILES: Oh, yes. They appeared almost everywhere. Almost
everywhere I looked there were firearms, whereas before there had not been.
The probate records, they just skyrocketed. Prior to the Civil War, they
appeared in between--depending on the exact region we're talking about,
between 10 and 20 percent of the probate records. After the Civil War, they
appeared in the probate record of almost every adult male in the United
in every one of my sample sets. So guns, I think, had become rather
But also another reflection of this presence of firearms in American culture
is that it was very difficult after the Civil War to read a story, to read
even a romance set in the West of the United States without the presence of
firearms and of gun violence; something that would have been very unusual
prior to the Civil War.
GROSS: So it sounds like that was reflecting kind of accurately what was
happening, that there were a lot more guns, it was a much more violent
and the pop culture became more violent, too.
Prof. BELLESILES: I believe that's true. And it's interesting that foreign
visitors noticed exactly the same transition. If you read travel accounts
written prior to the Civil War, every foreign visitor is looking for what it
is about America that's unique. What is it that makes the American
different? And they would talk about many factors, mobility and greed being
the two most commonly mentioned in travel accounts of the early 19th
After the Civil War, there's hardly a single travel account that does not
mention somewhere how there seems to be guns everywhere. And it becomes
associated with the unique American identity, one which is often loathed but
often admired, because these are real men. These are men who know how to
care of themselves, know how to defend themselves and their families and who
are rough and rugged. That, of course, is the standard that Theodore
Roosevelt would appeal to in his very popular books at the end of the 19th
century and the beginning of the 20th on the winning of the West and the
GROSS: Now your history of American gun culture ends more or less after the
Civil War. Why did you end it there? Why not keep going? Too much work,
Prof. BELLESILES: Because it's already such a big book. Exactly. And my
daughter was getting awfully sick of these stories about firearms. But the
larger answer to the question is, I wanted to tell a story about how it was
that the most industrialized nation in the world, a nation which had
a highly civilized, democratic culture, one which allowed so much room for
dissent and so much room for individual liberty, had developed, also, one of
the most violent cultures in the world--certainly the most violent in the
industrialized nations. And for me, that story ends--the story of its
origins, if I may say this, ends in the 1870s. That's when that culture is
place and it's the culture we live with to this day.
GROSS: How do you think your research is going to be used? You know, gun
ownership and gun regulation is one of the most controversial subjects in
America, so how do you think your research will be used? How is it being
already? Who's arguing with you?
Prof. BELLESILES: Well, this is the biggest shock I've had of all. When I
wrote this book, I thought that my fellow historians would be interested and
my fellow gun aficionados--people who are too easily called gun nuts in the
public press--I thought they'd be fascinated by this story. But instead
has happened is I find that those people whom I thought would share my
interests in terms of an interest in firearms don't like this book at all.
And, in fact, I've received a great deal of mail, both regular mail and
e-mail, condemning me as anti-gun. And when I've given talks over the last
five years on the origins of American gun culture, there's always someone
stands up and says, you know, `Why are you so anti-gun?' And I think this
very peculiar, because if I was talking about automobiles and if I were to
that in the early years of the 20th century there were very few cars in
America, no one would get up and call me anti-car. But what is happening is
I'm being labeled anti-gun every place I look. And this is, again, a very
peculiar categorization of me.
As a matter of fact, I've received mail from members of the National Rifle
Association, including from their organizational headquarters, attacking me
for being so anti-gun. Apparently by questioning the solidity of this image
of the past, of Americans as having always been gun nuts, I'm calling into
question the current culture of gun ownership. This was never my intention.
My intention was to find exactly when the gun culture started.
GROSS: Do you think that the gun lobby in America has been drawing upon
history to justify its desire to prevent any further regulation of guns?
Prof. BELLESILES: If I may restate that, I think they have been drawing
a mythologized past to justify their position in terms of opposing any gun
regulation today. I think that is correct. Now I'm not going to criticize
them for that. I would never do that, because historians have been
the same stories for the last 40 or 50 years. It is intriguing that if you
back into the 19th century, you find historians who aren't saying that all
Americans own guns because they knew better, but somehow we have come into
later 20th century--now, of course, entering the 21st--to believe we've
been like this; that history somehow is immutable. But history's not
immutable so if--what is happening, I believe, is that the gun lobby, based
only on their initial response to my book and even before it's been
in fact, drawing conclusions on the research before they've read it, I think
they are trying to prevent a fair and open discussion of the reality of
America's gun ownership.
GROSS: Michael Bellesiles is the author of the new book "Arming America:
Origins of a National Gun Culture." He's a professor of history at Emory
Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on Napster. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Cyberspace availability of music and copyright issues
TERRY GROSS, host:
A major conflict between technology and culture began when a program file
called MP3 joined a Web site called Napster. This enabled anyone with basic
computer literacy to download whole songs with good sound and give copies of
the songs to anyone who asked. What the Napster people present as a
cyberspace equivalent of a record swap, the music industry and some
regard as the digital apocalypse. Music critic Milo Miles guesses that the
truth lies somewhere in between.
I'm a music fan of two worlds. I was raised on vinyl, became addicted to
But I've worked for an on-line media company for three years and feel
music is the face of tomorrow, and the nature of that tomorrow is the hot
cultural topic of the moment. Whether or not Napster is central to your
life, the issues it raises concern everyone's information future.
One reason there's been a zillion stories about Napster and free music
downloads is that it's a conflict made for cynical, modern media. All the
parties involved--consumers, musicians, record labels--feel disrespected by
the others. Likewise, opinions and pompous prognostications outnumber cold
facts by, again, about a zillion to one. Remember, consumers, musicians and
record labels have a long history of mistrust. Pirated copies of songs have
been an issue since the days of sheet music more than a century ago. Until
rock performers began to get smidgeons of control over their work in the
1960s, the music industry treated them like chattel. Record labels have
credibility with customers. The price of CDs stays high, though it was
promised to go lower and lower. Worse, the music industry is the biggest
Chicken Little in history. How long can the sky keep falling before it gets
here? Bootleg LPs are going to destroy the business. Home taping is
music. And now, MP3 files are ruining the future.
Music fans want vengeance. Download a song and stick it to the big-label
honchos. Angry fans don't want to hear about copyright control from
monstrously wealthy artists like Metallica. But consider fiercely
players like Aimee Mann. She recently re-established her career with help
from her own Web site sales, and she doesn't want to hear how Napster
are just sharing, rather than illegally copying her songs.
Free music downloads and their technology have upped the energy of piracy.
Bootleg albums and home taping are theft, but they're cumbersome and often
involve material not for sale anywhere else. It's fiendishly easy to copy
from Napster, and the even slicker music dispensers waiting in the wings.
even though nobody really knows if downloads have hurt retail, we do know
most of them involve best-selling material.
Record companies, fans, musicians--it's hard not to conclude that the record
industry is the heavy in the dysfunctional three-way relationship. It's
slow and stupid with technology from the start--8-track tapes, quadriphonic
sound, digital audio tape. But the industry can sure pay for lawyers. US
District Judge Jed Raykoff just ruled that on-line music provider MP3.com
violated copyright law, and the multimillion dollar fine has thrown a heavy
chill over all free download operations.
But you can't stop the tide from coming in by slapping it with a court
Lawsuits are no substitute for adapting to technology. The recording
simply must get moving. The labels must ditch complacency and give up
monopolistic control of distribution. I agree that although the hurdles are
huge, subscription services similar to cable television is the most
notion anybody has come up with.
If we can get to situation where an hour of on-line music cost five bucks,
everybody should be happy enough. The no-rules alternative suggests a
of cyberspace as a boundless dumping ground where everything that can be
digitalized is left in a heap for anyone to swipe as often as they like.
The old Internet watch words were `information wants to be free,' but is
all novels, movies and songs are anymore--free information?
GROSS: Milo Miles is music editor at rock.com.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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