Book Review – When The Cheering Stopped

I recently finished reading When The Cheering Stopped, an account of the last years of Woodrow Wilson. This is the hardcover edition, published in 1964. K found it when going through some of her late father’s things and gave it to me since she knew I like history books. Based on the inscription, it was a gift from a classmate. It’s a well-written, slightly dated book that is worth reading to see the inner details of what went on in the last years of the Wilson Presidency as he tried to bring America into the League of Nations both before and after his stroke on the campaign trail for the League.

The title is a reference to how Wilson was received after The Great War in Europe where he was hailed as a savior, cheered on the streets of Paris and revered as a man who saved Europe from the catastrophe of war. The book is broken into three parts, a description of the President with insights into his views of the War and his reactions to sending America’s young men to battle in Europe. It describes the loss of his first wife Elly and we get a glimpse into the intensity of the man, his complete and total love for his wife and his near total inability to function after her death. He was a man of strong convictions, both in his politics and in his personal life and it comes through in this book.

Eventually, his grief fades and he is introduced to Edith Bolling Galt, the future Mrs. Wilson. The story of their courtship is touching and personal, one made difficult by the fact that he is President. It’s interesting to see how it unfolds, always with a Secret Service man in close proximity. This chapter also details the beginnings of the fight for America’s entrance into the League, supported so strongly by the President and opposed equally as strongly by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. After it became apparent that he would never be able to strong-arm the Senate into ratifying entrance into the League, Wilson decided to take his argument directly to the American people in a whistle stop tour across the country. The details of the trip are striking in this day and age where so much distance is kept between our leaders and the commoners. Wilson was always close at hand, eventually having to be stopped from shaking the peoples’ hands because of his weakness. Throughout the trip and recounting, it is clear that his health is greatly declining. He suffers from terrible headaches and is obviously weakening as the trip continues. Eventually, in Pueblo, he suffered the stroke and the trip was cancelled. The touching moments when it becomes apparent to the First Lady how badly the President has been affected and the inner strength of the woman in the coming pages is remarkable.

The second section of the book is about Mrs. Wilson and her total and complete devotion to her stricken husband. Some have called her the first female president of the United States because for the remainder of his Presidency, he was largely incapable of any real work and everything, every decision, every bill, every meeting was funneled through Edith Wilson. At the time, little was divulged of the President and the public was largely kept in the dark regarding the seriousness of the President’s stroke. The Vice President, Thomas Marshall, was a weak man, actively prevented from decision making and the thought at the time of him assuming the Presidency was regarded as impossible. In fact, he wanted to have nothing to do with it. The descriptions of these people and their inner thought processes is remarkable. The quality of research that went into the book to make all this evident is extraordinary. Mrs. Wilson kept an iron grip on the access to her husband and it’s a fascinating juxtaposition with today’s requirements for instant information about every single detail of the political life. That a sitting US President was confined to his bed for months and even then, could only work for a few moments of the day is a fact almost unthinkable to us now.

The final section of the book covers the time after the Presidency when they lived on S Street in Washington. The book details the daily interactions in the family. It is an intimate account of the remaining years of Wilson as he slowly declined in health. The people of Washington were still exceptionally supportive of the former President and multiple instances occur of people writing him to express their gratitude or love. People founded clubs at their University in his honor. The fact that so many of the American people loved and supported the ex-President comes across clearly in the anecdotes and details of the book.

The book is largely supportive of Wilson and certainly has to be read from that viewpoint. But it is well-researched and written and offers an striking view into both the end of a man’s life and the end of a national era. Never before or since has something like this at the highest level of American politics happened. It is a detailed look at the convictions of both the man and his wife, convictions that affected our history on a political level. But it’s also a human story, one of love and personal triumph and grief that is worth reading.

Physicality

Busquemos la gran alegría del haber hecho (Let us seek the great happiness of having done) – from Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Maximus

Recently, I read an excellent essay in Garden & Gun magazine on the celebration of John Graves’ birthday. In it, the author talks about Graves’ stoneworks at his ranch and his need to create things physically, to “seek the great happiness of having done.” He specifically talks about the need to perform physical tasks while you are able because eventually, that ability will be gone, leaving each of us. I found it interesting to think about physical tasks like fence building or roofing in the context of today’s world that is largely mental in nature, at least at the most successful levels of society. We have become a sedentary mental population, one that actively avoids physical pursuits and will often pay other people to perform the tasks we might once have taken on.

This winter we decided to put in some sort of brick/stone border around several of the flower beds we created in our backyard. When we first moved into the house, gardening was an experimental task, the genesis of which was often a few too many margaritas on Friday night while perusing garden plan books. The main bed in our backyard is a large figure eight laid out in the southeastern portion of our yard. The border is a recycled rubber material, made from tires, found at Home Depot. For several years, it has served its purpose well, keeping the bermuda grass out quite successfully. However, there are a few places where it is installed poorly, below grade, and I fight a constant battle to keep the grass out of the bed. Also, it’s not particularly pleasing to look at, lacking a certain professional appeal found in other beds we’ve seen.

So it was decided that we’d have a stone border put in. We discussed getting estimates from a local nursery but as with many of the projects, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. There is certainly an appeal to writing someone a check and showing up to find something solved around the house. I’ve done that several times with fencing in particular, both because I have zero experience and because it’s hard to build a fence by yourself. But most other garden projects can be done successfully alone, a physical solitary pursuit towards an accomplishment that can be enjoyed for years. Once I read the article on Graves’, with its romanticizing of the physicality of the stone work, the slow shaping of rock into a form that is both pragmatic and beautiful, I was convinced to do the border myself.

Mind you, I’m no stoneworker and everything was bought from a local big box home improvement store. There will be no mortar involved, not selecting of stones to fit together precisely, no crafting of the design into something beautiful. These are precut bricks, made for novice construction workers like myself. But still, there is the element of extreme physicality juxtaposed with the intervals of mental planning and thought. The work is difficult, digging a trench for the first course of stones in the thick, North Texas clay testing the work of the construction worker before even a tenth of the project is done. As with most of my projects, there is a large element of experimentation, thinking through possibilities and then partially implementing what seems to be the best one as a test.

It is this constant interplay between the physical and the mental that I find so rewarding, I expect not unlike a painter working with the canvas on an experimental idea. This molding and creating with my hands is something I miss in my day-to-day work. Even on the days when I actually create things, they are almost completely mental with no real tactile interaction with the digital world I’m manipulating. I enjoy seeing something take shape, begin to evolve from the mental pictures I have dreamed up into something physical in the real world performing a function as well as improving the look of a project.

This creation, this “having done”, is something missing from our day to day lives, most of us. Certainly the concept of our agrarian past is largely romanticized now, leaving aside the raw brutality and difficulty of that life. But there is a satisfaction in managing a brutal, physical task when the result is some tangible thing sprung from our labor. “Having done” is an important happiness, one that many of us have lost in the mental world we currently inhabit.

And yet, mental creation is not unimportant. Books and symphonies and essays all bring a richness to our lives, one that deepens and broadens our understanding and appreciation of the world we live in. I constantly struggle between the need to create things physically and mentally. I admit a certain bias to physical creations, fences, stone walls, arbors, gardens. They seem more tangible, more worthy of recognition. This struggle is especially difficult coming from a person who largely makes a living from mental creations.

In the end, I find it necessary to oscillate between times of physical and mental creation, using each one as a stepping off point for the next cycle in the process. This alternation serves to enrich both portions of my creativity.