2ECOND THOUGHT A publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council
[the SEVAREID issue]
The purpose of America is to be an American. -Eric Sevareid North Dakota Humanities Council reminding the nation why it exists, and what it stands for U Pluribus Unum Out of Many, One
Support democratic ideals. Become a member of the ND Humanities Council. See enclosed envelope for more information.
features [contents] THE CONSCIENCE OF AMERICA
Photos in this issue generously provided by Suzanne St. Pierre.
4 Long Thoughts Briefly Spoken By Dan Rather
8 He Was All of America Talking to Itself By Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
16 Go Ahead and Look In Praise of Forbidden Looking
By Scott Nadelson
20 A Tribute to Eric Sevareid
By Scott Stevens
IN HIS OWN WORDS 24 Reading and Rereading Eric Sevareid
By Mark Strand
28 Not So Wild a Dream
By Eric Sevareid
44 The Taming of a Dream
By George Scialabba
FIERCE PRAIRIE POPULISM 50 The Land That Shaped the Thinking of Eric Sevareid
By Ray Penn
54 The North Dakota Eric Sevareid Never Knew
By William C. Pratt
ERIC SEVAREID LEGACY SYMPOSIUM 58 Complete Schedule of Events ON SECOND THOUGHT is published by the North Dakota Humanities Council. Brenna Daugherty, Editor Jan Daley Jury, Line Editor To subscribe please contact us: North Dakota Humanities Council 418 E. Broadway, Suite 8 Bismarck, ND 58501 800-338-6543 firstname.lastname@example.org
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication or the Not So Wild a Dream Symposium do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the North Dakota Humanities Council.
note from the executive director
The Revolution of Rising Expectations
Eric Sevareid was a threat to America. At least the FBI thought so since they kept an extensive file on his activities for fear he may be a communist or perhaps a foreign spy. Vice President Spiro Agnew was so convinced of the damage Eric was inflicting on American society that he singled Sevareid out during his crusade against the media, during which he insisted that journalists were all “nattering nabobs of negativism” with a liberal bias. I reject the notions that Eric Sevareid was a communist, a spy, or liberally biased, but I have to agree that he was dangerous. It seems the particular problem with Eric Sevareid was that he didn’t just inform his audience of specific events, he sought to explain why they happened the way they did and what that might mean. Of course today MSNBC and Fox attempt the same thing, but they have an obvious political spin, right or left. The problem that so exasperated those with power, right side or left, during his tenure at CBS (1939-1977) was that Eric took several sides. Even his most loyal viewers could find themselves irked by his unpredictability. The trouble wasn’t that people didn’t know where Eric stood. (As he explained in his response to Agnew’s request that journalists face an interrogation in which they explain their real thoughts and feelings on every issue, he was right there, night after night, with all the eyes of America on him.) The trouble was that Eric followed his own trajectory to arrive there. His mind was a labyrinth of knowledge acquired through intensive scholarship and the firsthand experience of a reporter at the center of pivotal world events. He spent the bulk of his waking hours wandering through the wisdom of the past and the questions of the contemporary world. In the end, he hoped that he had stumbled upon the truth, knowing full well, “Truth is neither turgid nor neatly packaged; it is elusive, many-sided, a harvest gathered only with patience, humility and largess.” In the evening he synthesized the complexity of his thoughts into two-minute monologues for mass consumption. He was America’s first and only nightly news philosopher. But that was only part of the problem. Eric was also stubbornly convinced that the purpose of America is to be American. He did his reasoning as an American intellectual, and in his mind being an
American meant giving oneself over to the idea that at the core of our democracy is “the conscience of a people demanding the best of themselves.” This was a dangerous combination. It allowed Eric Sevareid to achieve the rarest and most sought-after ideal of journalism: He became America’s conscience staring back at the nation through the mirror of the media. Eric didn’t so much tell people what to think, as how to think critically and self reflectively as a nation. During Eric’s reign of terror, national television put its audience in the uncomfortable position of responsible citizenship. America didn’t always like what it saw in its reflection. Eric was often critical, and more than often even a bit cynical, but he refused to be apocalyptic. In the midst of race riots, Watergate, and Vietnam, Eric reminded America to demand the best of itself. In one of my favorite commentaries, he turns prophetic: In the absolute sense our power steadily grows; our economy grows in spite of temporary slowdowns; and— most exciting of all—there is a cultural, educational burgeoning that one can feel in the American air almost everywhere from coast to coast. There is a passion for higher education of an intensity I have felt in no other country I have known. The tremendous pressure on the universities is due not only to the rise in population, but to a general rise in family goals for the young. “The revolution of rising expectations” applies to the United States, highly developed as we already are. I have seen nothing like this anywhere. Say, if you will, that the television screens and the magazine racks are half-filled with trash; say that teaching standards are far too low in a thousand places; say that athleticism outranks intellectualism in a thousand places. I will agree, but I will say to you that all this is changing, slowly because the task is enormous, but most surely. A cultural explosion as well as a population explosion is gathering force among our people underneath the honky-tonk exteriors. There are over 2,000 theatrical groups in the United States. More than half the symphony orchestras in the world are to be found in the United States. Painting is a passion with millions… and I would assert, as a prophecy, that from this vast and growing exposure there will rise the highest general level of education, understanding of the world and cultural awareness that history has ever witnessed. Eric’s prophecy has not yet come to fruition, but if we continue to democratize the humanities and arts, I fear we will come dangerously close. May the Sevareid Legacy Symposium reawaken the dream of revolution in America’s conscience.
Brenna Daugherty Executive Director
Dan Rather (left) and Eric Sevareid (middle) being welcomed to Vietnam, 1966.
Long Thoughts Briefly Spoken By Dan Rather
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Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor. -Eric Sevareid
Where does one begin when contemplating the life and times of Eric Sevareid? As the years slide by since his death it doesn’t get any easier. What a man; what a life. And in this age of “news-lite”, news values succumbing to entertainment values, a widespread lowering of ethics and standards in journalism (to say nothing of the deterioration of good writing in general), how we miss him! Eric believed in the power, the importance of words. To him, more than to any other person I have ever known, words mattered. He believed that words have consequences, even when only spoken. He considered writing to be a moral act. This was embedded in his head, heart and soul. It was deep in his id, in the core of the man. So to say that he never wasted words is an understatement. His silence happened to me many times, driving with him up to fly fish or hunt birds over dogs in Virginia, or on some plane ride, or working a story. That’s just the way he was. Eric Sevareid was eloquent on the air, but in person he was quiet. Given to silence. Long silence if he was thinking, or if he just didn’t believe he had anything worth saying, or if he didn’t feel like talking just then. I remember the first time he invited me to go bird hunting with him, in 1967. I had not hunted anything for a while and the only gun I had in my Washington home was a 12-gauge shotgun with a choke. I had last used it years before on a Texas duck hunt. Too big a gun for quail, to say the least.
This shotgun was in a carrying cover so Eric didn’t see it when he picked me up. We drove for two hours. Other than “Good morning,” he said nothing. When we finally got out of his car and began preparing to walk, I unsheathed the big 12-gauge. He uncovered a little 28-gauge double-barrel. He spoke not a word. But he looked at me like I was a hitchhiker with pets, looked at me with that big Nordic glare. Then he smiled, shook his head, and mumbled, “C’mon.” I felt foolish but forgiven. Eric always forgave you. We went on to have a great afternoon in the outdoors. I was constantly early and too far out front with my shots. “Patience,” he counseled softly. “Patience.” Pause. “And concentration.” He was even better when it came to pursuing trout. He was out of Velva, North Dakota, by the way of the University of Minnesota, Paris, and a thousand datelines long since forgotten. He had been many places, but he came home. And he came home to Georgetown, to his own house, to die. He knew he was dying. You could never fool Eric; he was too smart, too observant, too sensitive. Like Edward R. Murrow, who hired him at CBS, Sevareid was a lifetime scholar. Murrow was the best reporter and
[the conscience of america] broadcaster in the history of over-the-airwaves news. He was the classic scholar-correspondent. So was Sevareid. Eric also grew into being a philosopher-correspondent, the only one broadcast news has produced. And he is unquestionably the best writer to come out of electronic journalism. The proof is not just in Not So Wild a Dream, one of the best autobiographies of his time and perhaps his defining work. There are also his essays, read on radio and television for almost half a century. No one of his generation wrote more or better essays–no one, print or broadcast. And they have stood the test of time. Much of what he wrote about America and what it meant to be an American in the post–World War II era is as interesting and instructive today as it was the day he wrote it. Sevareid is the only broadcast journalist I know who was a combat correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. When I visited him for the last time, he sipped tea and told me how he wished he could have gone to the Persian Gulf. “Sort of,” he added, “but I guess I’ve seen enough wars.” My mind went back to a place near Hue, early in the Vietnam fighting. Sevareid was the first of the big-name American broadcasters to come and see for himself, firsthand, what we were getting ourselves into. “I don’t like it,” Eric told me. “I don’t like it partly because I don’t believe anyone has thought this damn thing through.” Sevareid always thought things through. And partly because of that, he knew about an incredible range of things: how to lead quail, how to mend a fly-line, how to converse with a monarch or a showgirl, and how to stay alive in tight places. Like Hemingway, he loved the outdoors. Like Hemingway, he was a man’s man when that was still something you said, when that still meant something. He and Hemingway had a northern-midwestern stoicism, determination, and intellect. He went to Paris and Hemingway did (they knew each other there). And the two wrote in similar spare, lean styles. For my money, Sevareid did it better.
The man and his writings had a quiet authority, and the beauty of simplicity. The excellence of his writing is part of the reason
people who came late remember Eric Sevareid the elder statesman, the sage. But he was a combination of thought and action. Like Andre Malraux, the French philosopher, writer, and journalist whom he knew and admired, Sevareid traveled the world, seeing for himself, engaged, taking chances. And then he tried to think things through, write about them and philosophize about them. He always seemed taller than he was, although he was well over six feet. He dominated rooms, seemed to dominate any landscape he occupied. He had charisma, and he was a star. But he was a quiet star, and he was not so much glamorous as he was compelling. When you heard him speak on the radio, where I heard him first, and later on the television or in his office, you listened, and you thought. There was, in person as over the air, a brooding quality about him. But his wife for the last thirteen years, Suzanne St. Pierre, brought him calmness within and a happiness that had always seemed to have eluded him before. He also took great joy in his twin sons and a daughter from previous marriages. When I saw him that last time, in his Georgetown house, with the sun shafting through the windows over a fountaincentered, small back garden, he seemed at peace. He knew, in that way that Eric always knew everything, that his work was done, his place secure. In the pantheon of broadcast journalism, only Ed Murrow himself ranks above Sevareid. When Murrow died, Sevareid wrote (as usual) the best line: “He was a shooting star; we will live in his afterglow a very long time.” Now, the same can be said of Sevareid himself. But I prefer to think of him as a Northern Star, the Great Northern Star: constant and clear, the big, bright, quiet one. Dan Rather served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News from March 9, 1981, to March 9, 2005, the longest such tenure in broadcast journalism history. He has covered virtually every major event in the world in the past 50 years including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the civil rights movement; the White House and national politics; wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Yugoslavia and Iraq. In 2006 Rather founded the company News and Guts and became anchor and managing editor of HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, which specializes in investigative journalism and international reporting.
I think of him as a Northern Star, the Great Northern Star: constant and clear, the big, bright, quiet one.
Sevareid at his Virginia cabin, 1978.
He Was All of America Talking to Itself Condensed from an address delivered in Bismarck, North Dakota, on November 12, 2009
By Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
[the conscience of america] Never underestimate your listener’s intelligence, or overestimate your listener’s information. -Eric Sevareid
We have come together this evening, I am convinced, not merely out of nostalgic affection for the bygone days when the major networks did courageous documentaries, when radio and television newscasters respected the English language and the public’s intelligence, nor even for love of North Dakota, nor merely in our respect for the legacy of Eric Sevareid. We come in patriotism, because, like Sevareid, we love America — its wheat fields, and local rivers, its trout streams and ocean shores, its Velvas and Manhattans, and Washington, D.C. And, though your children and grandchildren and my journalism students may not recognize the name, we miss him. And we think we know what he would say if he were here today. In the summer of 1994 I was swimming in the surf off Sea Bright, at the villa house of the Society of Jesus on the New Jersey shore. A fellow Jesuit asked me what I was working on; and, when I told him the biography of Eric Sevareid, he replied, as the waves washed around him: “There comes a time when the heart must tell the head what it must do; and that is the time when the heart is about to break.” My friend was quoting the last line of Eric’s powerful CBS Evening News commentary on the Vietnam War. He had heard it once and remembered it for more than twenty years. Meanwhile today, when synchronized suicide bombings of government buildings in Baghdad kill more than 130 Iraqis and when two helicopter crashes in Afghanistan take another 14 American lives, while President Obama takes his time deciding on troop deployments there because he “wants to get it right,” the battle between the human head and heart seems relevant again. In the beautiful first paragraph of his post-World War II memoir, Not So Wild A Dream, he evokes the earth, fields, and water of tiny Velva, where he was born, to set the scene for the book’s theme: the democratic spirit that won the war took its strength from the American frontier, from the toil and vision of the men and women who came together to build the barns, harvest the crops, and then to fight the battles of the war. In 1953 he wrote a letter supporting a fund drive for a Velva medical clinic, and in 1956 published “You Can Go Home Again,” in Collier’s, an ambiguous essay which could be read as an endorsement or indictment of American small-town life. He had consulted a psychiatrist about his boyhood memories and had been told that his emotional attraction for the Mouse River was an “oceanic feeling,” a deep yearning for ultimate origins: “The golden threads of the past.” Exploring the town alone, he knocks at the door of his old house. No one answers. In 1987, just five years before his death, with his sister Jeanne and a PBS television crew, he returned to produce an American Experience documentary on the early chapters of Not So Wild a Dream. The project took three days, but he stayed in a hotel in Minot and commuted to work. Arthritic, he moved slowly with a cane. The visuals showed the wheat fields and the Mouse River of the first line of his memoir, but, because the flood control levee had cut off the main current, the river was a stagnant pond. The script began with a line lifted from the 1946 memoir: “Why have I not returned for so many years?” But a few years earlier, after his Collier’s article, a woman told him she was from Minot, which he had described as a “Magic City” in his writings. His reply was a chilly brusqueness, which
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is a writer for the 100-yearold Jesuit opinion weekly, America magazine. He is also the author of The American Journey of Eric Sevareid.
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friends attributed to shyness and others to rudeness, “I really don’t have anything to do with Minot or Velva anymore,” he said. “We moved to Minnesota when I was very young. I’ve never been back except for special occasions.” To the literary historian there is nothing surprising in his attitude. There is a moment in his childhood where the very young Arnold symbolically “runs away from home.” He zips out the door and runs down the street, headed several blocks to who knows where. Anyone from a small town who wants to be a writer—Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, or Larry Woiwode—must first flee the town; otherwise he or she risks self-censorship to avoid offending relatives, or the local history syndrome that romanticizes the past. But it was here, as an apprentice at the Velva Journal, a four-page weekly, that he learned what he wanted to do with his life. When his father’s bank failed in 1925, the family moved for a year to Minot, then to Minneapolis, where they lived in a big wooden house in a middleclass neighborhood, and, though the high school period, he wrote, “is surely the worst period in a man’s life,” at Minneapolis Central High School he learned something about cooperation, “team spirit,” social equality, how to put the school paper to press, and how to write a two– column headline, which he said, was on “a higher order than the ability to write a sonnet.” Doing my research I followed young Arnold’s trail from Velva to Minnesota. (It wasn’t until 1939 that he moved his middle name, Eric, into front place.) I stayed a few days at the Jesuit Novitiate residence in St. Paul, where, one of the young Jesuits, when I said what I was working on, exclaimed, “I know about him. Today I just met a guy whose father made a big canoe trip with him in 1930!” Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I could actually find and talk to Walter Port, the rugged young athlete, more than three years older than Eric, who joined him for the 2,250-mile, death-defying ordeal of paddling a canoe from Minneapolis to the Hudson Bay. When I found Walter Port the next day, he was extremely gracious but ailing; he had outlived his old friend, but just barely. I sensed that had it not been for Walter Port’s strong body and strength of character, 65 years before, there would have been no Eric Sevareid as we came to know him. At a turning point in their journey they were urged to turn back; but, Eric wrote later, “What I was entering
I knew instinctively that if I gave up now, no matter what the justification, it would become easier forever afterwards to justify compromise with any achievement.”
upon at Norway House was a contest with myself.
At the University of Minnesota he was the rare undergraduate who published his first book at eighteen, Canoeing with the Cree (1935), based on the reports he had sent in to a local newspaper on his trip; and today, bold young men and women every few years reproduce the journey, feeding the Minneapolis Tribune from their laptops along the route. Working his way through college, he majored in political science and joined the Jacobins, an elite political discussion group, mentored by the charismatic Professor Benjamin Lippincott, a Democratic Socialist. Several were pacifists and demonstrated against compulsory drill. More than anything else, Eric poured his energies into the campus Minnesota Daily, convinced that he should and would be named editor—only to have his name vetoed by the university president. The sting of this rebuke still lingers ten years later in his memoirs. And ten years after that, in the 1950s, his opposition to the ROTC pops up again in his FBI file as evidence that he was un-American. Nevertheless, his career maintains the steady course into newspaper journalism, at the Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Journal where he covered a brutal truckers’ strike and exposed the Silver Shirts, a national network of Ku Klux Klan–like clubs, only to be fired in the wake of a newspaper strike. In 1935 he had married Lois Finger, a law student and the beautiful and brilliant daughter of the track coach; in 1937 they left for a new life in Paris. There, the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune saw his talent and let him write what he wanted. He interviewed Gertrude Stein, and his coverage of the trial of Eugene Weidman, a serial killer, caught the eye of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow in London. War was on the horizon and Murrow had been commissioned to assemble a cadre of reporters to cover it. His search was not for young men with good looks. Radio listeners neither knew nor cared whether their reporters were handsome. Nor even great voices. What mattered was intelligence —and the ability to adapt the language of print journalism to the needs of the ear— and realism to make the listener feel present at the event, like holding the microphone at pavement level so listeners could hear the footsteps of Londoners descending into the bomb
Eric canoeing God’s River, 1930.
Eric Sevareid, high school graduation photo, 1930.
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shelters, and a conviction that the common man, given the information, could judge the public good. Sevareid, by nature, spoke, and wrote visually; but somehow he made his poetic prose work. He joined the new fraternity called “Murrow’s boys” —including William L. Shirer, Larry LeSueur, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, and Charles Collingwood—with Murrow as not just their boss but, especially for Eric, their “father figure,” and in London, their inspirational leader, like Shakespeare’s Henry V, their “little touch of Harry in the night.” As the German army marched toward Paris, Eric sent Lois and their twin sons Michael and Peter, delivered after a very difficult pregnancy, home to America. Eric had come to love Paris passionately. It was the city that gave this North Dakota and Minnesota boy a new life. As its government fled south, he wrote, “Paris lay inert, her breathing scarcely audible, her limbs relaxed, the blood flowed remorselessly from her manifold veins. Paris lay dying, like a beautiful woman in a coma, not knowing or asking why.” This was another turning point, like his pause at the age of seventeen, on the way to Hudson Bay. As a teenager he had identified with Richard Harding Davis, the greatest of the turn-of-the-century war correspondents, whose battle stories had the unfortunate effect not only of making war look romantic but of suggesting that war correspondents—in the Spanish-American War and the Boer War—were somehow invulnerable, that the bullets passed over their heads or hit only combatants on either side of the intrepid reporter. Davis himself discovered to his shock in his attempts to cover World War I, that the machine gun and bombing from the air had made the old gentlemen’s rules obsolete. In World War II many correspondents would lose their lives. Sevareid did not want to be one of them. He was afraid. But he was also learning that fear is never conquered in one brave act. Like the life-long struggle for personal integrity, it is conquered only step, by step, minute by minute, and for him, word by word.
At this turning point, I would like to condense the chronology of Sevareid’s life and then focus on one aspect of his character, which, to me at least, seems, in retrospect most meaningful. Rather than return to America to be with his family, Eric reported to Murrow in London. But his nerves did not serve him well during the Blitz. Murrow himself, whose spectacular courage led him to fly with the bombing raids over Germany, refused to go into the shelters, because he said that once he tried one he might flee to them all the time. Sevareid returned to Washington in 1941 and covered stories in Latin America. But his eyes were on Europe. Though the term “objective journalism” was not yet current, Sevareid, like Murrow, believed that the media must serve democracy, and so should be mobilizing public opinion against Nazi Germany.
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When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, he struggled with his conscience over whether he should enlist, but he was persuaded to serve as a war correspondent instead. He followed the armies into China, North Africa, Italy, southern France, and finally across the Rhine into Germany. After the war the Murrow Boys became the foreign radio and then television correspondents for CBS, known as the “Tiffany Network,” for its high standards and courageous documentaries, “CBS Reports,” with Sevareid as a roving correspondent and nightly commentator on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Looking back at his long and successful career, one must ask: what was the heart of his moral character? I suggest physical and moral courage. He planted the building blocks of this courage as a high-school graduate by canoeing to Hudson Bay, and as a college student, by riding the rails, during the Depression, across the country to work in a California gold mine. During World War II he did not want to die, but he continually put himself in circumstances where he might be killed.
Sevareid (right) in Murrow’s (left) office, 1954.
In 1943, at the request of the United States government, he flew to China to assess the political situation. Over the Burma “hump” the engines of his C-46 gave out, and the twenty passengers, including diplomat John Paton Davies, parachuted into the jungle. At the realization that the plane was going to crash, Eric’s first reaction was, “Oh, no! This can’t happen to me!” But as his chute opened, it was “My God, I’m going to live.” As a boy he received the sacrament of confirmation and considered joining the Lutheran ministry; but in college
and in his journalism career, he left his religion behind. But as the wind carried his chute toward the burning wreckage of the plane, he prayed, “Dear God, don’t let the fire get me. Please!” As the survivors assembled, the captain appointed Eric the group chaplain, not because he was holy, but because he was older and looked like a leader. In a way that foreshadowed the role he would assume as a TV commentator. Chaplain Eric was playing a role which, though secular, stemmed from his professionalism as a newsman, one who gets the story and considers its meaning, which is, in a sense, his quest for a transcendent truth. So, on August 8, 1943, at 11:00 a.m., the time he remembered going to church at home, he constructed a huge cross and conducted a memorial service for the co-pilot, Lieutenant Charles Felix, whose body they had buried on the hillside. The Nagas, fierce headhunters, found them and made them at home. The air force dropped supplies. Days later a rescue party led by a dashing young British diplomat arrived to help guide them on a 140-mile, ten-day march as they trudged over hills and waterfalls under the boiling sun into safety in India. He continued his mission to China where he traveled extensively, met the troops and their leaders, and broadcast several reports which he could get through the censors. But the 2,500-word essay—in which he delivered the full, negative assessment of the Chiang Kai-shek regime, whose government was more fascist than democratic, and concluded that if the Chinese and American people were to remain friends, they must end the “polite lying, the false propaganda and the concealing of fault” — was killed by the government censors and shelved. In 1954 John Paton Davies was fired from the State Department for giving advice that later turned out to be unpopular. With the rise of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Democrats were accused of having “lost China”; John Foster Dulles removed Davies and others known as “old China hands,” accused of being soft on communism, from the Foreign Service. Eric in his late-night radio broadcast, knowing that he himself could be accused of communist sympathies if his 1943 essay were published, defended him. The board that dismissed Davies dropped the charges of communism, but said he had “defects of character.” Sevareid recalled their ordeal in the Burma jungles and replied, “I saw their victim measured
The liberation of Gertrude Stein, 1944.
against the most severe tests that mortal man can design. Those he passed. At the head of the class.” Herbert Bayard Swope, legendary editor of the old New York World, praised Sevareid’s courage. Davies responded that it did take courage to go against the “hysterical frame of mind in the country”; but in another sense it did not
because Sevareid really believed what he said, and it was his business to say what he believed.” take courage,
From the beginning, in 1950, well before Murrow’s famous See It Now broadcast, Sevareid opposed McCarthyism and defended others, like Owen Lattimore and Robert Oppenheimer, whom he thought were falsely accused. His toughest condemnation came during the U.S. Army–McCarthy hearings on January 10, 1954, when McCarthy revealed that a young man on the staff of counsel Joseph Welsh had a remote communist connection, and Welsh exploded in righteous indignation, “Have you no shame?” Sevareid replied that night, that McCarthy had no answer because “he had no feeling that he had done anything morally wrong . . . He cannot help it. The personal tragedy of McCarthy is that the nerve chord or cluster of cells that produce what men call conscience was not granted to him.” From 1963 until he retired in 1977, Eric Sevareid settled into a working routine he interrupted only for occasional speaking engagements, fishing trips, and vacations. He drove his daughter Tina to Chevy Chase Elementary School, read the New York Times and Washington Post, and then drove his blue Volvo to the new CBS office at 2020 M Street at 13
Sevareid’s reporter’s notebook from China, 1972.
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10:00 a.m., where, in his relatively large office, he sat and stared at his gray manual Royal typewriter. After lunch he answered all his correspondence, and, unless the writer questioned his integrity, he sent warm, brief, gracious replies. To old friends from Velva: “Of course I remember you. . . Your house was just. . .” He wrote many condolence notes, often promising prayers. The challenge was writing that evening’s commentary. Strictly speaking, in journalism conventional wisdom, it was not a commentary, but an analysis. An editorial proposes a line of action. An analysis dissects a news item into its parts and puts it in context. A commentary gives the journalist’s personal opinion. Sevareid was not supposed to
the attraction for Sevareid’s viewers was watching a good mind come to a conclusion, a clear opinion that will help move a public trying to make up its mind. give “opinions.” Whatever the form,
His creative process was complex. He talked out ideas with producer friends, made phone calls, picked the brains of local experts, wandered into the hall and paced solemnly up and down, stopped in on the young Marvin Kalb, just back from Moscow. He lunched with friends, swam at the Metropolitan Club to ease the pain of his arthritis, returned to the office, where he’d sometimes stretch out on the sofa, and return to the typewriter to stare some more. He smoked steadily, inhaling deeply and blowing a big cloud out in front of his face. Some staff complained that he was lazy. After all, how hard is it to write 400 words, a two-minute address? But for him it was not just 400 words. They were his 400 best words—words meant to last. He told novelist Kurt Vonnegut that he was writing the Gettysburg Address every day. Finally, the script was retyped for the teleprompter, the make-up applied, the lights dimmed because he hated the glare and to soften his features. He never got used to microphones or cameras and he long complained that the TV medium sacrificed words to image. Yet, ironically, on the nights when his viewers had no idea what exactly he had said, they were still awestruck at the words which poured forth from the man whose grey head filled the TV screen and they understood that the source was a very wise and good man. 14
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When Eric Sevareid retired in 1977 he was never replaced, and in the silence that followed the art of commentary died. Once 60 Minutes demonstrated that news could be profitable as well as the source of the network’s prestige, management evaluated news programs on the basis of the “bottom line.” Those two minutes could be used for another commercial. When the new technology made it possible to broadcast live from all over the world, young, ambitious reporters lusted after those two minutes as well. Commentary had developed during the New Deal when new big government programs demanded “experts” like Walter Lippmann, James Reston, and the Alsop brothers to explain policies. Today the cabinet secretaries and even the president compete for time on the Sunday morning and even late-night talk shows. With the explosion of information, the line between reporting and interpretation has grown fuzzy again; the journalist on the scene interprets the event. In public television and cable news, “pundits,” who, unlike their journalistic predecessors, who were made experts by their experience, are often former political operatives, who either chat seriously or yell at one another and call it “analysis.” Eric was correct when he feared the picture would win out over the good word. In the world of the couch potato with the remote control, no one listens to one person for two minutes. Ultimately the problem is that Sevareid was unique. No one else has come along with the world’s battlegrounds, his library of history and literature, and his mastery of the language, as well as the North Dakota wheat fields in his blood and brains. He was all of America talking to itself. In three quotations, we will give him the last words. In October 1970, in a speech written by William Safire, Vice President Spiro Agnew, in an attempt to intimidate the press, said that commentators like Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid should appear on a panel show and reveal their “real opinions.” Sevareid replied: Finally, at the risk of sounding a bit stuffy, we might say two things. One, that nobody in this business expects for a moment that the full truth of anything will be contained in any one account or commentary, but that through free reporting and discussion, as Mr. Walter Lippmann put it, the truth will emerge. And second, that the central point about the free press is not that it be accurate, though it must try to be, not that it even be fair, though it must try to be that, but that it be free. And that means, in the first instance, freedom from any and all attempts by any power of government to coerce it or intimidate it in any way. On April 19, 1972, the futility of the Vietnam War was becoming evident. Eric said: If we have reached the dreadful point where the honor of the state and the conscience of the people collide, then what does honor mean, anymore? We are asked to believe it is dishonorable to depart and risk the safety of Vietnamese political and military leaders, but honorable to go on contributing to the certain death and misery of the wholly innocent. We are asked to believe that better relations with Russia are worth the loss of our own sense of moral identity. There does come a time when the heart must rule the head. That time is when the heart is about to break. In November 1977, we had three nights to say goodbye. On the last: There is in the American people a tough, undiminished instinct for what is fair. Rightly or wrongly, I have the feeling I have passed that test. I shall wear this like a medal. Millions have listened, intently and indifferently, in agreement and in powerful disagreement. Tens of thousands have written their thoughts to me. I will feel, always, that I stand in their midst. This was Eric Sevareid in Washington. Thank you and good bye. To which I say, AMEN. 15
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One good word is worth a thousand pictures. -Eric Sevareid
I was maybe eight or nine years old, sitting with my family at the Hunan Restaurant in Morris Plains, New Jersey. It was a weekday evening in winter, the place raucous with kids and businessmen, no different than the dozens of times we’d been there before. We were in a booth beside a bank of windows, and outside it was dark enough for me to see my reflection in the glass. I enjoyed watching myself as I ate, making faces and tracing the movement of food down my throat. But then, just as I took a bite of spare rib, I heard a woman’s voice behind me, not much more than a whisper: “I hope you choke on it.” The voice was slow and deliberate, full of anger, weighted with a bitterness deeper than any I’d encountered before, and this startled 16
me even more than the words themselves. For an instant I was sure those words were directed at me, though I had no idea how I might have provoked them. I was sure, too, that I was the only one who’d heard them, the only one capable of hearing them, as if they’d been spoken directly into my ear, or only within my head. I chewed carefully and swallowed. But then, beside me, my brother snickered. My father looked up, blinking, and my mother glanced over my shoulder with an astonished, stricken look, her jaw clamped on a mouthful of food. Not only had everyone heard the voice, I realized, but it had nothing to do with me. And for some reason I found this so disappointing that I set down my rib and began to turn. “Mind your own business,” my mother said, but it was too late. In the glass I caught sight of the couple behind us, their reflection framed by the red velvet
uprights of the booth. The woman was in her early forties, with curly hair and a bony, bloodless face, lips pressed so tightly they disappeared. Her eyes were sunken and dark, and even then I recognized them as the eyes of someone who’d hardly slept for days. She had a plate in front of her, but her meal looked spare and unappealing, several chunks of crispy, glazed chicken surrounded by soggy broccoli, and in any case, it hadn’t been touched. Her hands were under the table, her back stiff, her entire body still except for an odd twitch in her cheek that made her slender nose alternately sharpen and dull. The man across from her I could see only in profile, and it was strange to think that he and I were back to back, separated only by a few inches of fabric and foam. He was a little older than the woman, with gray hair over his ears, a trim mustache, a pinch of loose, rough skin under
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Go Ahead and Look In Praise of Forbidden Looking By Scott Nadelson Scott Nadelson’s most recent book is The Cantor’s Daughter. He teaches creative writing at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of the Oregon Humanities magazine. Reprinted by permission.
his chin. He wore a suit that seemed tight around his shoulders, and his face was flushed, as if his collar were squeezing all his blood into his face. His plate was nearly empty, only a few bits of pork and onion and pepper remaining in a pool of dark sauce. He took a sip from his wineglass, then bent close to the table and scooped a mound of rice into his mouth. His jaw moved a couple of times and then stopped. He dropped his chopsticks. His hands went to his throat. But I knew he wasn’t choking. He pretended for a few seconds, then laughed, and went back to eating. The woman’s mouth parted, but she didn’t say anything. Her shoulders went limp. Her face no longer looked hard but beaten. Her tired eyes left the man, and before I could turn away, they caught my own. There was no doubt that she’d seen me looking, no doubt that
she knew what I’d seen. There was embarrassment in her expression, and shame, but also a hint of pleading, a desire for understanding and sympathy. She was glad to have someone else witness her torment, I can guess now, glad not to suffer alone. When I turned back, my mother was looking at me with disappointment and reproach. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to scold me, that she was right, I shouldn’t have looked, and that what I’d seen was punishment enough. There were three untouched ribs left in front of me, but I’d lost my appetite. I pushed the plate away. I was recently reminded of this incident while rereading First Love, Ivan Turgenev’s brilliant early novella, in which a boy discovers that his father is having an affair with their beautiful young neighbor, Zinaida. The sixteen-year-old narrator, too,
is in love with Zinaida, but as yet he has no experience of love other than longing and fantasy. When he secretly follows his father to a rendezvous with Zinaida, he knows he shouldn’t look, but he can’t bring himself to turn away. Already he is in the grip of some kind of mystery, held fast by “an odd feeling, a feeling stronger than curiosity, stronger even than jealousy, stronger than fear.” And what he sees he can hardly believe. The two argue quietly, Zinaida at first resisting her lover’s advances. Then she holds out her arm, across which the narrator’s father delivers “a sharp blow” with his riding crop. This horrifies the narrator, but what he sees next shocks him even more: “Zinaida quivered—looked silently at my father—and raising her arm slowly to her lips, kissed the scar which glowed crimson upon it.” After this, her resistance is gone, and the narrator’s father runs into her waiting embrace. (cont.) 17
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The narrator doesn’t understand what he has seen any more than I understood what I saw in the restaurant, and his thoughts are “in a dreadful whirl.” What he does realize, though, is that “however long [he] lived, [he] should always remember Zinaida’s particular movement — her look, her smile at the moment.” He has witnessed the ugliness and cruelty of adult love, the violence of desire, the wildness of passion, all of which he is years away from experiencing for himself. But he recognizes that this moment has aged him. His own love “now seemed … so very puny and childish and trivial beside that other unknown something which [he] could hardly begin to guess at, but which struck terror into [him] like an unfamiliar, beautiful, but awe-inspiring face whose features one strains in vain to discern in the gathering darkness.” His glance has thrust him deeply into the mysteries of the world, and while this immersion terrifies him, it also transforms him. A few years later Zinaida dies in childbirth, and by then the narrator is prepared to face what lies before him: “Even in those lighthearted days of youth,” he tells us, “I did not close my eyes to the mournful voice which called to me, to the solemn sound which came to me from beyond the grave.” He is now open not only to the mysteries of love but also to grief and suffering and loss. He has entered the realm of truth, and there he remains, as much as it may pain him. Examples of such forbidden looking abound in Western literature. None, I suppose, is better known than the story of Lot’s salty wife, but close on its heels is that of the poet Orpheus, who, upon descending to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from an untimely death, receives an injunction from the inhabitants of Hell: Take your wife back to Earth, but as you go, don’t look behind. Of course Orpheus does look, and Eurydice falls back into the darkness, never to return. In Ovid’s version of the story, Orpheus casts his forbidden glance in order to make sure that Eurydice is still with him, “fearful that she’d lost her way.” I read this less literally than metaphorically: What Orpheus fears is that his wife is in fact still dead, that she can’t really return to the world of the living. When he turns, he sees the face of death behind him and knows that his wife is lost to him forever. She is taken from him a second time not because he has abandoned the prohibition but because his attempt to rescue her from death was futile from the start, because death is always
final. Orpheus’s forbidden glance brings him face-to-face with the fact of mortality, a fact he can no longer deny, and when he returns to the world he is inconsolable, “melancholy-mad,” sitting in “rags and mud,” living on “tears and sorrow.” But something else happens to Orpheus in the midst of his renewed grief, something, as with Turgenev’s narrator, profound and transformative. Before being torn to pieces by “raging women” made wild by his beautiful singing and his refusal to sleep with them, he sits on a grassy hill to play his golden lyre. “A lovely place to rest,” Ovid tells us, but one that “needed shade.” And no sooner than Orpheus sings his first notes do all the trees of the world crowd around him, from the “silver poplar” to the “swaying lina,” from the “delicate hazel” to the “spear-making ash.” His singing now isn’t just beautiful but metamorphic, magical, an art form that transcends pleasure and enjoyment to literally change the landscape. According to Ovid, before visiting the underworld, Orpheus was “poet of the hour.” Now, having faced death and the horrible truth of mortality, he brings trees to a barren hillside. Informed by the knowledge of death, his art is lifted from momentary, passing fancy into legend. Despite what it cost him, his forbidden glance brings him greatness, and more important, infuses his song with a beauty that reshapes the world. Orpheus remains one of our most powerful archetypes of the artist, not because of his solitary brooding, but because of the way he captures his ineffable encounter with the unknown and gives it form, translating it for those who’ll never experience it for themselves. The role of the artist is to see what we can’t or don’t want to see and to present it to us in a form that doesn’t allow us to look away. No one, to my mind, has embraced this act of exposing the forbidden more fully or successfully than Chris Burden, the notorious performance artist of the 1970s, best known for pieces in which he has collaborators shoot him in the arm or crucify him to the hood of a car. When I first learned about Burden in an art history class in college, my professor spoke about him as an art world pariah, someone who took experimentation too far, who was reckless, sensational, exploitative. But when I finally
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viewed clips of his work, I was surprised to find how quiet they are compared to the sensationalism that surrounds us on every mediated front, how spare and simple and restrained . While his pieces often involve danger and selfinflicted pain, they resist the sensationalism of their subject matter in order to explore some of our most fundamental questions: How do we relate to the bodies that contain us? How much can these bodies bear? How can we live in the face of our vulnerabilities and the violence that constantly threatens us? In 1973, the year I was born, Burden bought a month’s worth of advertising time on a local TV station. After a highly produced ad for a dance-music record anthology, video of one of Burden’s performances appeared in black and white with only a simple graphic, the artist’s printed name followed by a handwritten title, “Through the Night Softly.” For ten seconds, TV viewers watched Burden, wearing only underwear, with his hands held behind his back, squirm across pavement covered in broken glass. The only sound was Burden’s heavy, grunting breath and the crunch of glass shards under his chest. And then the screen went blank and he was quickly replaced by another highly produced ad, this one for shower soap. I can only guess what viewers might have made of Burden’s ad while awaiting the return of a sitcom or baseball game, when they were staring at their TVs with the half-consciousness that advertising demands. The image passed so quickly that they might have wondered if they’d really seen it, or if they’d only imagined it. They might have believed that someone at the TV station had made a mistake, that they’d glimpsed something they weren’t supposed to see, that they should have turned away. But that image of a man crawling through glass must have burned in their minds; they must have carried it around with them for the next few days or weeks or months, and even if they wanted to forget it, it would show up in their dreams. When Burden placed “Through the Night Softly” on TV, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down after many gruesome years, and certainly the piece evokes images of soldiers crawling through mud and debris, images that must have been all too familiar to viewers by 1973. But what Burden seemed to intuit— decades before reality television and 24-hour cable news—is that ours is a culture in which looking isn’t really
The images produced for us by advertisers are meant to lull, to erase thought rather than to provoke it, and the constant marketing of products drains meaning from even the hard facts of the nightly news. By slipping seeing.
his ad between images of laundry detergent and motor oil, Burden ruptured the trance of his viewers, making them confront not only the horror of war and the everpresence of mortality, but also the body’s incredible resilience, its fragile beauty. He cut a small slit in the surface of our mundane daily existence and gave us a brief, irresistible glimpse of what lay behind. The TV was his hillside, broken glass his lyre, ten seconds of video his song. It would be disingenuous to trace the start of my writing life to that evening at the Hunan Restaurant when I was eight or nine years old. Another decade passed before I picked up a pen and tried to write a story, and certainly other experiences contributed to the genesis of those early efforts. But now, whenever I sit down to face a blank page, I try to remind myself what, above all else, I’m supposed to do: look at what you don’t want to see, even if you don’t understand it, even if it causes you discomfort or confusion or pain. I couldn’t have guessed what went on between that couple in the booth behind me, what might have made the woman say those bitter words or look at me with such despair. Even now I can only wonder at the cruelty of the man’s laughter as he scooped rice into his mouth. All I knew then was that I’d glimpsed something I shouldn’t have, that I’d peeked into an adult world of misery and meanness I wasn’t ready for and didn’t think I ever would be. I’d seen something terrible and profound and mysterious, and like Turgenev’s narrator, I knew it was something I’d never forget. The couple left before we did, and I kept my head down as they passed our table. Soon after, my father paid the bill, and I followed my family outside. It had grown darker since we’d gone in. But now my eyes were all the way open. They took in more light. They made the darkness brighter. 19
Sketches of Eric Sevareid by Jonathan Twingley. www.twingley.com
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The bigger the information media, the less courage and information they allow. Bigness means weakness. -Eric Sevareid
A Tribute to Eric Sevareid
Reprinted with permission from the Minnesota News Council
When people gather at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on September 16  to honor the memory of Eric Sevareid, who died July 9 at the age of 79, someone should talk about the Silvershirts. His exposure to them and of them helped the boy from North Dakota grow into a man of the world. In the basement of Wilson Library on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, you can find a microfilm file of the old Minneapolis Journal and, on the roll for September 1936, a page-one, five-part exposé of a local anti-Semitic, fascist group—the Silvershirts—by a young reporter named Arnold Sevareid. (He started using Eric, his middle name, when he became one of Ed Murrow’s boys, as World War II neared and his broadcasting career began.) THE MINNEAPOLIS JOURNAL New Silver Shirt Clan With Incredible Credo Secretly Organized Here Weird Order, Beset by Unbelievable Fears and Hatreds, Claims Six Thousand Members in Minnesota. By Arnold Sevareid You probably won’t believe this story. It concerns an organization now active in Minneapolis—known as the Silver Shirts. It concerns secret meetings, whispers of dark plots against the nation and the Silver Shirts’ incredible credo. Members of this organization talk about ideas and goals so fantastic that anyone who has heard them in meeting as I have goes away wondering if he still lives in America in 1936. Then he wonders if Sinclair Lewis could have been wrong, after all, when he wrote “It Can’t Happen Here.” 21
[the conscience of america] The series strikes today’s reader as bizarre: for one thing, it totally lacks the kind of documentation today’s standards for publication and credibility require. An editor’s note on the first piece says, “Some of these stories will present extremes; others will describe typical attitudes. All of them will seem incredible. But they are based on verified experiences.” The reader gets, however, no verification. No names, places, dates or times appear; you have to take Sevareid’s and the paper’s word for it. And the style of most of the writing has long since been dismissed as “Gee whiz” journalism. Any reporter loves getting on page one, but Sevareid didn’t like the way the Journal played his splashy story. What he found so offensive and dangerous to society, his editors at the pre-Cowles conservative paper regarded with a tone of mockery, as a later generation of editors would regard conventions of UFO buffs. The stories described a secret society of right-wing survivalists who envisioned a takeover of America by a Jewish-Communist conspiracy. One of its supposed leaders was Maurice Rose; they saw him as an international banker in disguise. In fact, Rose worked as chauffeur to Governor Floyd B. Olson. Predicting a takeover, one Silver Shirt told Sevareid: “In Minneapolis they are going to start through Kenwood and sweep eastward around the lakes and thence across the city.” In line with the editorializing tone of the series, Sevareid offered an observation: “I was astounded, but not from the cause to which he attributed my astonishment. I was astounded that such childish reasoning could exist in a brain of a man so mature.” Despite the prominence the series gave Sevareid, that experience and others at the Journal hardened attitudes in him that his bosses could not abide, and they fired him. Those attitudes took shape in the years just before, when as a student at the “U” he led the successful fight against compulsory ROTC, and President Lotus Coffman saw to it that Sevareid was denied the editorship of the Daily that he had earned. “For the first time,” Sevareid later wrote, “I tasted the ashes of bitterness.” Particularly bitter for one who had worked so hard and who had won the respect of so many peers and teachers. And for one whose drive and optimism made him think of himself as much less likely a victim of unfairness than those whose causes he had taken up. 22
The Depression, the rise of fascism, and challenges to his sense of fairness all combined to change Sevareid from the boy he described in his autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream, published in 1946. When Sevareid left his farm town of Velva, North Dakota (pop. 837), even when he finished Minneapolis Central High School in 1930, this soon-to-be campus radical still believed—as he later wrote—”that Herbert Hoover was a great man, that America was superior to all other countries in all possible ways, that labor strikes were caused by unkempt foreigners, that men saved their souls inside wooden or brick Protestant churches, that if men had no jobs it was due to personal laziness and vice—meaning liquor—and that sanity governed the affairs of mankind.” His experiences at the university and downtown with the Journal convinced him otherwise. He developed strong sympathy for organized labor, including the embryonic Newspaper Guild he had joined. Once, assigned a story on a suburban camp that downtown businessmen were “nobly” organizing for the poor and homeless, he listened as a banker confided: “Of course, between you and me, we have a hard-headed motive. These filthy bums are edging too far up Nicollet Avenue. If we don’t get them away they will tarnish the high tone of these blocks and drive realestate values down.” Sevareid recalled: “He nudged me and winked. The potentate, letting the lowly scribbler into the secrets of power! I delayed writing the story, and when an editor inquired about it, I was foolish enough to blurt out my feelings on the matter. I was told to conform or resign from the paper.” Not long after that, Sevareid wrote a story mistakenly identifying a veterans group as the American Legion instead of as the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars], and the paper took advantage of the opportunity to fire him. These were the journalistic roots of the man most Americans picture as that silver-haired, dour fellow—the very model of moderation—who delivered himself of deliberate interpretive essays on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Did Sevareid talk that way off camera? One of his college chums, Warner Shippee, now retired director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs here, remembers Sevareid’s speech as measured: “He thought of himself primarily as a writer. I saw him as a person who was very judicious, who weighed things—a true journalist.”
Shippee and Sevareid belonged to a maverick campus group, a non-Greek fraternity called the Jacobins, a name derived from the political group in the French Revolution known for extreme egalitarianism. Minnesota’s Jacobins included Dick Scammon, who later headed the U.S. Census Bureau; Earl Larson, who became a federal judge; Lee Loevinger, who became a state supreme court justice and Federal Communications Commissioner; Phil Potter, who had a great career at the Baltimore Sun; Art Naftalin, who became mayor of Minneapolis. Naftalin says of Sevareid: “He was a hero to me and the rest of us who came after him at the University. He was someone who’d gone off into the real world to fight for what so many of us believed in.” Naftalin said he’s been reading Sevareid’s autobiography again and appreciating his writing more than ever: “He had an incredible ability to capture the mood of whatever he was involved in.” Sevareid’s writing sets a high standard. Take his sense memory of his boyhood home in North Dakota, where there was “no roof to the sky, no border to the land.” Can’t you hear his familiar cadence? “Wheat was the sole source and meaning of our lives . . . it was rarely long outside the conversation.” He loved the democracy of his farm town, and he wondered, “Why can’t the rest of the world be like us?” He discovered how different it was, not only in the big city, where small-fry fascists fomented hate, but in Europe, where haters became killers. In Minneapolis, after his Silvershirts series ran, he recalled, his personal life became a hell, filled with vicious verbal attacks on him. In France, in September 1939, he inhabited another hell, as war broke out. This hell was more theirs than his, but he felt it keenly enough to make us feel it, too. Sevareid witnessed the boarding of the trains that would take thousands of Frenchmen, still exhausted by World War I, off to training and battle. “No bands played,” he wrote after the war, “there were no flags, and nobody make a speech about ‘la gloire.’ They moved to the trains of endless length as though it were a weary routine they had practiced for twenty years. As far as you could see there were the clusters of faces, expressionless faces in the compartment windows. Another journalist who saw it—Miss Dorothy Thompson, I think—said, ‘Not one replaceable face.’” Arnold Eric Sevareid—like any of the rest of us—is not replaceable, either. But today’s news media
need to make room for his kind of journalism—explaining the life-and-death issues of the day.
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Reading and Rereading Eric Sevareid By Mark Strand
I have never quite grasped the worry about the power of the press. After all, it speaks with a thousand voices, in constant dissonance. -Eric Sevareid
Eric Sevareid broadcasting during the invasion of southern France.
While veterans of the last war were unpacking their footlockers in 1946, Eric Sevareid’s Not So Wild a Dream suddenly appeared in their living rooms, making its way as a bestseller. Like the kid on the block who succeeds at door-to-door sales, Sevareid’s “first born” left the house without so much as an introductory note from its parent to warn readers what the book was up to.
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To people in the book trade, Sevareid must have seemed myopic about marketing. The following were also absent from the book: a preface by a famous person, or one of the author’s pals, to confer status and boost sales; chapter headings with names instead of numbers (the author was taking the reader on a tour around the world; signposts might help). There were no photos, and the author’s biographical sketch was missing. Not So Wild a Dream would only state its name up front and say that the CBS writer Norman Corwin had thought of it first. Then with a swoosh of italic type, To L.F.S., the book was off and running. Eric Sevareid was used to jumping into a story, and he was hell-bent on getting to page one, scene one with this first sentence: “The small brown river curved around the edge of our town.” Readers were then swept away by a narrator who brings scenes to life, as vivid as film, and lays his thoughts over the images. Simultaneously, the reader is inside the action and the mind of the author. A river of film runs through Sevareid’s book: his childhood in North Dakota, his 2,000-mile canoe trip with his friend Walter Port, riding cross-country in boxcars, working a newspaper beat, attending the University of Minnesota, and starting a family during a war while circling the globe as a CBS correspondent. Here is Sevareid’s “short film” about France on the brink of war: “They were coming from the slums and tenements, and they still had on their soft, powdery denim, their working clothes. From the elbows hung the oval helmets they had kept in the back closet since 1918. They did not look like soldiers beginning a war; they looked like soldiers at the end of a war, when soldiers resemble any other tired men. Their wives had come with them to the station, hanging to their arms, shuffling rapidly in their felt slippers to keep up with their men. Their hair was pinned carelessly in place, and their eyes had the dry glaze and coloring that signified all-night weeping. They waited for the trains, standing facing one another, oblivious of anyone else, the husband staring over his wife’s head at the floor, the wife staring at his chest, and neither speaking. A tall, handsome young officer with shiny dark straps was grinning at his fashionable wife, pretending to sock her in the jaw, kidding her. Form. A behavior pattern. Noblesse oblige. The poor, who struggle for daily bread, have time only for reality.” Inside his river of film, Sevareid sometimes pauses to make powerful word pictures. While Germany invaded France, and Lois Sevareid lay in a French hospital about to give birth to twin boys, Eric stopped in the middle of the French retreat, looked back, and painted his famous visual metaphor of Paris as a woman lying in a coma slowly bleeding to death. Then the action continues with rapid transitions in and out of scenes woven together with Sevareid’s thoughts about people and nations. He is just as interested in a tribe of Naga headhunters in the Burma jungle as he is European societies. A conscientious guide, Sevareid is so anxious to take the reader inside scenes that we sometimes lose sight of him. As one of his reviewers wrote, Sevareid “uses autobiography not as a memorial to self but to enrich the common experience.” Similarly, encounters with his family are veiled and nearly off camera. The reader may stop several pages later and ask, “Was that Eric’s brother he just met on the street in Paris?” or “I wonder how Lois and the twins are?” Beyond these personal questions, practical questions arise: How did Sevareid do this so quickly, less than a year after the
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war had ended? Memoirs this complicated take years to research and write, and some gifted writers never get the job done. How did he have the courage to write so openly about his thoughts and beliefs? The cold war was coming on. How would CBS and its sponsors respond to his candid thinking? What about the House Un-American Activities Committee or J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI? His only expressed concern was his fear that the public would count him among those who “lost China” due to his frank reporting about Chiang Kai-shek’s weak, corrupt regime.
The New Edition
Eric in the Burma jungle, early 1940’s.
Thirty years after its birth, Not So Wild a Dream was a grown-up. The book had ranked high on the bestseller lists and survived eleven printings without changes, including no word from the author in the form of an introduction. Then in 1976, a year before his retirement, Sevareid stepped from the shadows like a proud father to explain the mysterious birth of his book with a proper introduction to a new edition. He would also talk about his approach to writing and reveal more about himself. The content inside remained unchanged because, “self-protection of that kind would appear dishonest.” The new dust jacket wore the subtitle: “A Personal Story of Youth and War and the American Faith.” About the birth of the book, Sevareid said that the 250,000 words were written at “one sitting,” in an approximate eight-month window, a happy time for his family between the war and his return to CBS. He had been twice the age of many young soldiers. Now he was young by authors’ standards, his energy equivalent to an “overcharged storage battery.” The book was written from memory with few notes or diaries and sent out without an introduction because “books should be self-explanatory and require no preparation of the reader.” There was little time to reflect on what he had done before getting back to earning a living. He was proud that the book had become an “original source” for the events to which he was an eyewitness. He was pleased that another generation found it relevant and amused by the readers who wrote to him with “genteel excitement” after discovering his book in antique shops. Speaking of “errors of commission,” Sevareid sounds as proud as a parent whose kid has nearly perfect teeth when he admits to one misspelled word and a misnamed river in Russia. His only technical regret: using “which” when “that” would “fall more gently on the ear.” Mark Strand is a professor and chair of mass communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He grew up in a family-owned photography business in Rugby, North Dakota, and graduated from Concordia College where the president of the college told his parents, “He’s a little liberal, but he’ll be all right.” Strand did his graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Concerning the craft of writing, Sevareid describes the “blessing—or the curse” of his “double vision,” and the process of combining thoughts with actions. The double vision technique calls for 1.) describe the scene (early morning: tired men in work clothes, their wives in slippers, hanging on the men’s arms, making their way to rail station), 2.) locate a person (an officer in dress uniform standing with his stylish wife), 3.) present an idea (contrast the romance of noblesse oblige with the reality of the poor). Sevareid had discovered that he wrote for the eye, not the ear. There was “not much conversation in the book,” and he didn’t think he was cut out for writing novels. There had been talk of movies. Hollywood wanted to re-tell Eric’s story about his encounter with the Naga headhunters after a plane wreck in the Burma jungle, but India’s Nehru
[in his own words]
was busy putting down the rebellious Nagas, and nothing came of it. Thirty years later Sevareid was still angry about Nehru’s treatment of the Nagas—and the abrupt ending to his film. Filmmaking and writing are not as easy as one, two, three. Behind the scenes are emotions. For Sevareid, emotions were mostly kept in check. He admits to an “impersonality in his personal narrative” and says he was “too young to handle intimacies in public view.” His authorial attitude was “One did not impose his deepest emotions upon others and certainly not upon strangers.” This attitude about privacy was acceptable in the age of Jefferson but not in 1976. Some of Sevareid’s friends, and many of his readers, wanted to know why he had said so little about his first wife Lois in the book. He acknowledged Lois’s importance and went on with a painful explanation of why their marriage of nearly thirty years had ended. Then he offered this confession: “The fantasy grew in me that her last chance for health lay in my departure as well as my own last chance to feel again, to see again with the poet’s eye and perhaps, one day, to write something that would be more whole than the writer. I never did, in spite of the departure, of course, and of course she never found health. She endured her own far greater tragedy for a quarter century in all and then died with merciful speed.” After a lifetime of condensing what he had seen and thought into words, first in print, then five-minute radio essays, and finally two-minute television commentaries, Sevareid was working inside fifteen pages to write something “more whole than the writer.” In the rest of the introduction, he discusses how America and the world have changed since 1945. The man a friend called a “hundred proof American” expresses faith in his country: “We are a turbulent society but a stable republic;” his profession: “No other great power has the confidence and stability to expose and face its own blunders;” and his countrymen to whom he wished his best: “Freedom is the condition of feeling like one’s self.”
Reading Eric Sevareid One of the charms and benefits of midwestern libraries is
the number of first edition books still on their shelves. I was fortunate to find the original 1946 edition of Not So Wild a Dream in mine and was so entranced by the book that I put down a series of murder mysteries by a Pulitzer Prize– winning journalist to read Sevareid’s autobiography. I wanted to know more. I had only known Sevareid as the man who propped up the CBS Evening News for two minutes each night with nothing but a rock-solid shot on one camera and thoughtful words. Raymond Schroth’s The American Journey of Eric Sevareid, so beautifully written and researched, was just the ticket. Later I purchased my own used copy of the new (1976) edition of Not So Wild a Dream and was surprised to find the “missing introduction.” Now I had something to offer the other member of my two-man Eric Sevareid Book Club, the North Dakota State University photographer, Dan Koeck. As a patron of another library specializing in first editions, Dan valued the new information, but we both agreed that it we were better for being for being deprived of the latest edition, that we had experienced Not So Wild a Dream the way the author had intended. My interest continued as I pursued other Sevareid books no longer in print. This Is Eric Sevareid, a book comprised of his longer pieces that appeared in various printed publications, includes his essay for Collier’s, “You Can Go Home Again,” helps answer the question, “What did Sevareid see in Velva?” The fascinating interviews Sevareid conducted with notable Americans, ranging from the elite journalist Walter Lippmann to the longshoreman and philosopher Eric Hoffer, have been collected in a book titled Conversations with Eric Sevareid. Reading those conversations sheds light on Sevareid’s remarkable ability to see several sides to a question. To my surprise, I found Small Sounds in the Night (1956), a collection of Sevareid’s CBS radio essays, on-line. Once the property of the Kansas City Public Library, the book was hiding out on the Internet in both the pdf and e-pub formats. Sevareid liked to grouse about changing technologies, but he might be pleased by how well his printed radio essays translate to new media. It is not so wild a dream to assume that someday we may read his essays on an e-reader with the option to listen to them in Sevareid’s distinctive voice, and no doubt, the package will include the optional video.
[in his own words]
Brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who prof it by postponing it pretend. -Norman Corwin from “On a Note of Triumph”
Not So Wild a Dream By Eric Sevareid Excerpted from Not So Wild a Dream by Eric Sevareid with permission by the Don Congdon Agency.
[in his own words]
[in his own words]
The small brown river curved around the edge of our town. The farmers plowed close to its muddy banks and left their water jugs in the shade of the willows. There is not much shade in the northern sections of North Dakota, nor is there much shelter in the wintertime. Even as very small children we could sense the river’s life-giving nature and meaning to the farmers, to us all. By December, despite the river’s current, the men could cut ice blocks three feet square, to be stacked and layered with sawdust in the shed behind Moose’s general trading store on Main Street, against midsummer when hot winds came across the prairie, a time when the milk seemed to sour just a few minutes after you had milked the cow, when you couldn’t even be sure of the butter kept in the well. Velva . . . was only one of various villages strung upon the river’s wandering length, but naturally we felt we exercised particular rights of possession over its flowing. On the red-painted wooden bridge, leading into the “city park” was mounted a large sign bearing a white star and the words in block letters: “Star City on the Mouse.” This led also to the baseball diamond and the swimming hole just beyond. Sometimes the team from a village like Voltaire would come play our men, and I can still remember my own feeling of proud generosity when, after the game, the Voltaire team would hurry to our swimming hole, strip off their overalls, and slide down our mud slide into the water, shouting, splashing, and shoving one another. Voltaire was only a few miles away, but it was bare and riverless. These men swam awkwardly with a great deal of thrashing and spitting. Only their forearms were burned a dark brown, and the face and neck down to the junction of the collarbone. The rest of their bodies was dead white in contrast. Grown men in those climates did not expose their bodies to the sun, and it was years before I saw adults with carefully nurtured “tans,” acquired in leisure, not working, time. Wheat. So far as Velva was concerned, wheat was the sole source and meaning of our lives, which were given in continuing hostage to the vagaries of this pewtercolored ocean that lapped to the thistle-covered roadbed of the Soo Line and receded in perpetually undulating billows as far as a child could see from the highest point, even from the top of the water tank. We were never its masters, but too frequently its victims. It was our setting and scenery. It was rarely long outside 30
a conversation. On the mercy of the wheat depended the presence of new geography books in the red brick schoolhouse, a new Ranger bicycle from Montgomery Ward’s, good humor in my father’s face. Its favor or disfavor determined the size and mood of the crowd of farmers on Main Street Saturday nights, and was the reason Pastor Reishus in the Lutheran church prayed as frequently for rain as he did for our immortal souls. In good harvest it meant that hordes of itinerant workers, I.W.W.’s (which meant “I won’t work,” according to the businessmen of the town), hung around the poolroom and Eats Cafe, hunched like tattered crows on the hitching rails, spat tobacco juice at the grasshoppers in the dusty street, and frightened the nice women of the town so that they rarely ventured on Main Street in the evening time. Good harvest meant that my father would have to leave his office in the back of the little bank, remove his hard white collar, change to overalls, and, taking my older brother with him, go to help out on one of the bank’s farms by driving the four-horse binder, while Paul, who was big for his age, would struggle with the shocks. Hired man or town banker, wheat was the common denominator of this democracy. It made all men equal, in prosperity or wretchedness. It meant that my father, the banker, was more of a confessor than the Catholic priest. His office was connected by a door to the town library for a time, and I could slip in among the bookshelves on days when the library was closed to everyone else. Sometimes I looked through the keyhole. I remember times when I would see a gaunt, unshaved Norwegian farmer sitting before my father’s desk, staring down at his blackened nails, speaking to my father with a painful difficulty about the locusts or the reaper which broke its axle on a rock, and sometimes, with more difficulty, about his wife who had gone sick again. Those were the bad times. Those were the days when my father could not eat much at supper. Those were the days when a buggy would drive up to our house after supper and my father and a wheat farmer would sit on the porch talking in low tones, with long periods of silence, until after we children fell asleep upstairs. Wheat was our solace and our challenge. My mother, who came from a green and pleasant city in the distant, mystical East—in Iowa—feared and hated it. My father simply met the challenge without emotion, as a man should, and grappled with it as well as a man knew how. In the end he lost it. It ruined him. North Dakota. Why have I not returned for so many
[in his own words]
years? Why have so few from those prairies ever returned? Where is its written chapter in the long and varied American story? In distant cities when someone would ask: “Where are you from?” and I would answer: “North Dakota,” they would merely nod politely and change the subject, having no point of common reference. They knew no one else from there. It was a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation’s mind. I was that kind of child who relates reality to books, and in the books I found so little about my native region. In the geography, among the pictures of Chicago’s skyline, Florida’s palms, and the redwoods in California, there was one small snapshot of North Dakota. It showed a waving wheatfield. I could see that simply by turning my head to the sixth-grade window. Was that all there was, all we had? Perhaps the feeling had been communicated from my mother, but very early I acquired a sense of having no identity in the world, of inhabiting, by some cruel mistake, an outland, a lost and forgotten place upon the far horizon of my country. Sometimes when galloping a bare-backed horse across the pastures in pursuit of some neighbor’s straying cattle, I had for a moment a sharp sense of the prairie’s beauty, but it always died quickly away, and the unattainable places of the books were again more beautiful, more real. 2 My father was of the second generation of Norwegian pioneers who came with the Swedes, the Germans, and the Danes to this bleak and barren northwestern country, where the skyline offered nothing to soothe the senses, but where the soil was rich and lumpy in knowing fingers. He was of the second wave. The first, which carried in my grandfather, paused, in the fifties and sixties, among the pleasant rolling hills of Iowa and southern counties of Minnesota, where one was always sure of rain. The land hunger did not die there. The railroads pushed out across the Dakotas, reaching for the fertile and already long-famous Oregon country, and the sons of the first, considering themselves very much American but still easily speaking their European tongues, followed soon after. The westering impulse was still strong in those men when my father went, in the first decade of this century, and those who penetrated North Dakota sought quick returns as well as permanent homes. For this was bonanza county. The soil was perfect for the crop. There were no hills to circumvent, no forests to clear. It required steadier purpose, harder work, and better men than the finding of gold; but the wheat was their gold. This was the Wheat Rush. So, recklessly they plowed and planted, the same crop year after year. They grew momentarily rich in the years of the First World War, but then the rains ceased. By now the original buffalo grass, which had preserved the soil, was long since plowed away, and without rain the earth lay dried and desolate, the color of old mud, and the hot prairie winds of summer, with nothing to stop them, simply transferred the top soil in the form of fine dust to faraway places. God knows how families survived those years, but they were tough and patient people and they always talked of “next year . . . next year,” until even a child could grow sick of hearing it. (And this, in the very years when the rest of the country flourished in the most extravagant prosperity it had ever known. Before Franklin Roosevelt presented the principle that Americans were one, obliged to care for one another. An idea, I must say, which would have seemed very strange out there in my father’s day, when a man still believed that his preservation depended upon himself alone, so that he blamed only himself—and the elements—when he failed.) Perhaps it was our common dependence upon the wheat that made all men essentially
In distant cities when someone would ask: “Where are you from?” and I would answer: “North Dakota,” they would merely nod politely and change the subject, having no point of common reference. 31
[in his own words]
equal, but I do know now, having looked at society in many countries, that we were a true democracy in that huddled community of painted boards. A man might affect pretensions, but he could not pretend for long. We lived too closely together for all that. There were, of course, differences in degree of material wealth. There were what was always referred to as the “well-to-do,” and we had a few families “on the other side of the tracks.” No doubt there was envy at times and small bitternesses here and there. But no man lived in fear of another. No man had the power to direct another to vote this way or that. No impenetrable combine could foist a candidate upon the people if they did not wish, and it would have been quite impossible to rig an election and get away with it. This was an agrarian democracy, which meant that there was no concentration of capital goods, which meant in turn, since we had no all-powerful landlords, that that no class society based upon birth or privilege had a chance to develop. Only a very thick-skinned, insensitive person would dare to “put airs on” in that intimate community. If Mother dressed my brothers and me too prettily for school one day, it was a moral and political necessity that we muddy our clothes as quickly as possible before showing up in the classroom. If this was a Christian democracy, still, no virtue was made of poverty; the Scandinavian is too hardheaded for that. But to be poor was no disgrace. If the man of the house in one of the families that lived close to the edge fell ill and could not work, my mother and other mothers carried them baskets of fresh things to eat. It was not charity, not condescension to ease the conscience; it was neighborliness, taken as such, and no one’s pride was injured. The Horatio Alger tradition was strong even then, and the village boys really read those insufferable little books. One day when we were out picking wild plums by the river bank, another boy said to me: “Your father is a pretty good man, even if he is the richest man in town.” I had no feeling of pride; far from it. I was shocked, and hurried home, close to tears. I demanded the truth from my father, for if this were true, I felt I would be in a highly compromised position; somehow my own worth would be at a discount. Patiently, he demonstrated to me that the charge of possessing great wealth was a false accusation, and I relayed this gratifying information to the proper place without delay.
Pictured second from the left: Eric Sevareid (15 years old).
[in his own words]
Later, I read all the exalting literature of the great struggle for a classless society; later, I watched at first hand its manifestations in several countries. It occurred to me then that what men wanted was Velva, on a national, on a world, scale. For the thing was already achieved, in miniature, out there, in a thousand miniatures scattered along the rivers and highways of all West and Middle West. I was to hear the intelligentsia of eastern America, of England and France, speak often of our Middle West with a certain contempt, with a joke in their minds. They contemned [sic] its tightness, its dullness, its bedrock of intolerance. They have much to learn, these gentlemen. For we had, in those severely limited places, an intolerance also of snobbery, of callousness, of crookedness, of men who kicked other men around. The working of democracy is boring, most of the time, and dull compared with other systems, but that is a small price to pay for so great a thing. I must have been very young when Main Street was first published. It is a title I remember along with Rover Boys, Horatio Alger, and the Bible. Not that I read it, then, but my mother did and the neighbors up and down our street. I remember the local wrath, and remembering my mother’s distress I know it came from being deeply hurt. Of course, in these little places originality was frowned upon, and genius would have been suspect. Of course, the pressure to conform was almost irresistible, and the boundaries of that conformity were appallingly narrow. Of course, art was at a discount and “niceness” the standard of taste. But this terrible indictment bewildered the citizens and made them wonder if all they had tried to do was wrong and had gone for nothing. For they had no other standard by which to measure except the past. And what had the past been? It had been sod huts, a diet of potatoes and gruel. It had been the hot winds of the summer that shriveled the crops, and the blizzards of winter that killed the cattle, that brought the pneumonia and influenza that killed their women and children, while the stricken men turned the pages of a home medical guide and waited for a doctor who lived twenty miles away. It had been the gnarled men who sweated beside a kerosene lamp to learn the grammar of their new county’s language. It had been the handing on from neighbor to neighbor of a few volumes of the classics, a few eastern newspapers three months old. It had been the one-room schoolhouse in a corner of my grandfather’s homestead, where a “bright” aunt could occasionally be prevailed upon to teach the rudiments
to tired boys and girls, who had risen before dawn to lug the slops because the family could not afford a hired man. They came together in villages and put paint on the boards of their houses. They planted green trees, made a park as best they could. They put their money together and hired for their children teachers who knew a little more. They sent some sons away to come back with the knowledge of medicine and the law. They built hospitals and colleges. The colleges were not Harvard nor Oxford, but they saw that the right books were there. They thought they had done well. Who, in his present comfort and easy knowledge, is now to sneer? They were of the men who built America; they are now of the men who keep America. They are America. I was to become one of that small swarm of young American journalists who, however deficient in scholarly background, infested foreign capitals, boldly bearded their great men, pugnaciously investigated their political movements, demanded the unornamental truth at a thousand press meetings where our French, British, or Portuguese colleagues approached the great with timid genuflections and regarded us with a mixture of distaste and awe. Instinctively, we looked at men for what they were—as men. A title of office, or a “von” or a “de” before their names was no kind of passport to our favor. Partly this was due to the rigorous downrightness of our American journalistic training, but partly to our beginnings in a hundred Velvas. When “Duff” Aaker died prematurely, why did the whole town mourn his death with such unfeigned sorrow? He was only a country doctor with no wealth, no lineage, no power over them but the power of his personality. I can still feel, when I remember, the tapping of his strong fingers on my chest and the cigar smell of his salt-andpepper beard. He was one of the first in our town to own an automobile, which he drove with savage speed. He played the piano, the ’cello, and the violin and even wrote symphonic music, which would have made anyone else suspect in respectable eyes. He understood my mother’s longing for the green and leafy places, and to him alone she could talk. He could denounce the Republican party and vote Nonpartisan League—heresy among the businessmen—and get away with it. He could drink in Prohibition days and get away with that. He could speak so wisely with a dying octogenarian that the old man was happy in dying. In his wrath he could refuse anesthesia to a drunken farmhand, terribly gashed in a 33
[in his own words]
pitchfork fight, make him sit upright on a kitchen stool, pour iodine overgenerously, and rebuke the man if he grunted. He drove down one day from the new hospital at Minot to play the organ at the funeral of the local shoemaker, and rushing out of the church tripped, I think, on a croquet arch obscured in the weeds. He was injured internally and died in great pain. My father was a big, stern man, who made stern judgments, and I had never actually heard him speak any praise of the doctor. The night Aaker died my father went up to bed early, without saying goodnight. When we children were going to sleep we could hear his bed shaking. He was sobbing, and we listened in terror all night, for we had never known him to do such a thing. Duff Aaker was the first great man I ever knew about outside of books. No president or premier ever seemed so great to me. Sometimes now it seems that my generation lived in preparation for nothing except this war that has ended and which involved my own life so profoundly; but the First World War, which was really the first phase of this one, must have been a very minor interlude for that generation. It surely did not affect our village much. I do remember my father lifting me to the window of a troop train as it halted beside the water tank, in order that we children could shake hands with Uncle Ephraim who was passing through on his way “over there.” I remember scolding Arthur Renning, next door, for putting sugar on his bread, knowing that the government in Washington did not want us to put sugar on bread. That’s all I remember about the war, except a dream, which is clearest of all. I dreamed the same dream many times. A column of “Huns” was marching down Main Street, past MacKnight’s drugstore, and had reached Welo’s department store, when I, lying artfully concealed on the roof of the bank, let go with my father’s Winchester .22 and mowed them down. They seemed to make no effort to take cover, or to stop me, and they all died instantly. (In the winter when this war was ending in Europe, the British press printed pictures of two German youngsters who had tried to snipe at our men. The caption said: “Examine the faces of these killers, this spawn of the Nazi beasts. Can we treat them as innocent children?”) There were a good many Germans in town, but your parents never talked about them as Germans, never 34
pointed them out and set them aside in your mind. Broad women with kindly faces who opened the doors to their clean, good-smelling kitchens and handed you a piece of limp, fragrant coffee-cake. They were just the neighbors. You knew they came from Germany, but you did not move them into that side of your mind which contained the Germany of the devilish Kaiser, the spiked helmets, and the savage men who cut the hands from Belgian children. The conception of Germans as a race, with racial (or, at least, national) characteristics of their own, was something that did not enter my mind for many years. There were no races with us, except the Negroes, and we saw only one specimen, who worked awhile around Johnson’s barber shop, then drifted somewhere else. Undoubtedly, there were Jews among us, a few, but I didn’t know what a Jew was until I was almost ready for college. A Jew is still just another person to me. If I do not experience any special reaction in the presence of a Jew, it is not due to broadmindedness. I cannot. It just isn’t there. The toxin was not injected into our bloodstream early enough, for which we give thanks to Velva. For my father’s generation, born in America though they were, the “old country,” which they had never seen, still seemed close. He carried a faint Norwegian accent in his speech throughout his life, which came from his early boyhood when few around the farms spoke English. Christmas dinner was never right for him without lutefisk and lefse, and Pastor Reishus always preached first in Norwegian, then in English. But there came a break with my generation, the third. It happened throughout that northwest country. Talk with visitors in the parlor about the old country bored my brothers and me. I hated the sound of the Norwegian tongue and refused to try to learn it. It meant nothing to me that my grandfather on my mother’s side was one of America’s most distinguished scholars of Scandinavian literature and life. The books in my classroom dealt only with the United States, and there lay the sole magnet to our imaginations. The thread connecting these northwest people with Europe was thinning out, and with my generation it snapped. There was another course which changed in that period. We were the first to grow up without the American West shining before the eye of the mind as the vision of the future. Instinctively we knew that the last of the frontiers had disappeared. From the time when the Indian
[in his own words]
tales lost their spell and we began to think, we wanted to go east. It was the East that was golden. My father did move his family east—a little way, to Minnesota—but not to seek more opportunity, more freedom; years of drought ruined his wheatlands and broke his bank. 3 The high-school period, in America anyway, is surely the worst period in a man’s life—the most awkward, uncomfortable, inept and embarrassing of all times. And the most fruitless. It is astonishing how little one is taught in these schools, or, at least, how little one absorbs of what they must be trying to teach. They handle this period much better in Europe, particularly in France. At least they do something with a boy’s mind. They fail, however, to do anything at all about the boy’s body, which is important at that age, so that almost the only exercise the pale, skinny Paris kids of seventeen obtain is in chasing girls—and, furthermore, catching up with them. This probably explains some of the pallor, although most of it is due to the hard, relentless grind over the books through which the French boy of seventeen understands at least as much of the world of ideas as the American youth beginning his junior year of college. In high school we obediently went through brief courses in elementary physics and chemistry, without the faintest glimmering ever percolating into our minds about the rigor and the glories of the scientific method, the long heart-breaking struggle of men to establish it against institutionalized superstition, or how and why it had made our age fundamentally different, more wonderful and more terrible, than all preceding ages. We learned “civics”—that is, we learned to repeat, like parrots, the Preamble to the Constitution and perhaps the Bill of Rights. We acquired not the faintest understanding of the Age of Reason, nor the long, slow loosening and freeing of men’s minds in their contemplation of society which resulted in a Jefferson or a Tom Paine. We had no idea of the older, European sources of these ideas, or what their fruition in the American Colonies did to the establishments and the people of Europe and half the globe in the generations that followed. So far as we were taught, the United States came into being because our forefathers were “against kings” and “wanted to worship as they pleased.” We were not taught these things, because our teachers, with few exceptions, did not know them. If they understood the economic interpretation of history and the meaning of the great Bolshevik revolution to the future world we children would live in, they certainly did not share that understanding with us. They knew of George Washington, but few had heard of Simon Bolivar; they knew about Napoleon, but not about Rousseau; they let us read the life of Herbert Hoover, if we wished, but none of them suggested we look into the ideas of Norman Thomas. America makes high-school teaching a trade. We turn out the tradesmen and tradeswomen “certificates” in their hands, by the thousands every year from the assembly belts of innumerable factories called teachers’ colleges and education courses. There are fine, devoted souls among them, but they are likely to quit trying early in the game. The system is against them. It is an exhausting grind with far too many bobbed, shaggy, or brilliantined heads before them every hour, all of whom, the system demands, must be treated exactly alike. Chambers of Commerce and parents’ organizations are looking over their shoulders constantly, and periodically down their throats. The system is designed to prevent challenging, revolutionary ideas, particularly political, from ever reaching a youngster, and at this stage, when most of them are more conservative than their fathers, more priggish than their preachers, the vast majority of American boys end forever their formal education. The virtues of the system have little to do with the intellect, but they are real: By competitive sports (vastly overdone) a boy may acquire the invaluable easy confidence with his fellows which can last him the rest of his life, which is the basic touchstone among young men all over
America makes high-school teaching a trade. We turn out the tradesmen and tradeswomen “certificates” in their hands... 35
[in his own words]
the world, for the relationship of most men during at least one half their lives has a physical basis. By living and working among girls he can acquire that peculiarly American thing—a natural approach to women as friends and even as comrades, not purely as sexual objects; a level unattained anywhere else in the world, except possibly in Russia. By the complete, leveling atmosphere of the public school, he becomes almost oblivious of social classes—for a time—and, while he acquires more respect for brawn than for brain, he acquires more for brain than for birth. Finally, by the team and committee system, so frequently ridiculed by foreign observers, he learns that the worst disgrace of all is to “let the team down.” He learns the doing of things together as the natural method, and since the central problem of our times is the social problem, the instinct of working together is the most important instinct a man can learn. Intellectuals go through a phase when “the team spirit” is a joke. Later I saw it win a war for my country. I finished Minneapolis Central High School in the summer of 1930, pale and skinny, having learned nothing except how to put the school paper to press, believing that the ability to write a two-column “A” headline was of a higher order than the ability to write a sonnet, believing that Herbert Hoover was a great man, that America was superior to all other countries in all possible ways, that labor strikes were caused by unkempt foreigners, that men saved their souls inside wooden or brick Protestant churches, that if men had no jobs it was due to personal laziness and vice—meaning liquor—and that sanity governed the affairs of mankind. 4 I then proceeded to an adventurous enterprise so heroic in its scope that I am staggered to this day when I recall it. It is practically devoid of meaning and implication. In any case, I am going to relate it. All through the high-school years I was the slavishly devoted comrade of a boy two or three years older than I, a boy of solid physique and remarkable energy who was so popular that he became the president of our graduating class. Walter Port came from Big Woods country in the northern part of the state, where his people had been fishermen and timber cruisers. He had a dark and swarthy face which would have 36
been handsome except for the indentations left by early smallpox. He worked until midnight each night in a downtown drugstore, then walked two miles to his rooming house, rose at dawn to do his “home work,” then walked to school, where he managed to be the highly successful “business manager” of student publications as well as performing on the swimming and gymnastic teams. He was the confidant of everyone from the principal to the janitors. The girls liked him, and to me he was the knight without fear, without reproach. The idea for the enterprise originated with him. He may have acquired it from reading the story of the Kensington Rune Stone, an unresolved mystery in American and particularly Minnesota history about which surprisingly few Americans have ever heard. In 1898 a farmer in the western part of the state plowed up a flat stone bearing markings that resembled some kind of writing. It turned out to be Runic, the alphabet of the early Teutonic or Celtic tribes, and as translated by Scandinavian scholars it told a brief story of a party of men (“8 Gothe and 22 Norwegians”) who had come from the sea inland by the rivers and were attacked by savages, with the result that the author of the tablet was almost alone among the survivors. The date 1362 was inscribed, placing the event several generations before the time of Columbus’s voyage of discovery. If literally true, this meant that Vikings of some description had penetrated to the Middle West, to the very land heart of the North American continent. Their most natural route would have been into Hudson Bay, then through the inter-connecting rivers which lead south and west to Lake Winnipeg, then straight south along the Red River of the North to the area where the tablet was discovered. The authenticity of the tablet has been in dispute ever since it was found—one group of scholars quite convinced the thing is true, others believing that a certain young Scandinavian scholar at the University of Wisconsin, disgruntled by bitter quarrels with his teachers, had fabricated the tablet and planted it, knowing it would be uncovered, excite the world of historians, and, he hoped, show up his superiors to be the unmitigated asses he was convinced they were. Altogether, if the second theory is correct, it is the most elaborate delayed-action booby trap in academic history. But it was half-dud, the explosion was muffled; nobody agrees who has proved what. The story of the Rune Stone confirmed what was
[in his own words]
obvious from a glance at the map—that one could go by water from the Red River area to the Atlantic Ocean in the north. By a more careful look at the map, Walter and I saw that it was also possible to prove something which, in our minds at least, was ignored by our contemporaries and was of historical consequence. We would demonstrate that it was possible to travel, entirely by water, from ocean to ocean, straight through the heart of the continent. Everybody knew of course that the Mississippi connected the Gulf of Mexico with Minnesota, and we would show that you could continue from the Mississippi to the North Atlantic by branching off into the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling, mount its five hundred miles, push through a couple of small lakes at the Minnesota headwaters, go the thirty-mile length of the narrow Bois de Sioux river (really just a swamp), which is the beginning of the Red River of the North; then you would just descend its seven-hundred-mile length, debouch into Lake Winnipeg, skirt up its eastern shore and get into one of the rivers that drain the lake into Hudson Bay some five hundred miles farther on, and you were there. (Just why anybody would treasure the knowledge that you could thus cross the continent, especially since it would have to be done in a canoe small enough so that a man could carry it on his back over the necessary portages, is a question that never occurred to us. We were less than twenty. Forgive us.) The harassed editor of the Minneapolis Star, looking for any device to increase circulation, even among adolescent readers, gruffly agreed to pay us one hundred dollars all—we dared to ask—in return for the weekly descriptive articles that I would provide. I fear he lost his investment—the articles seem inconceivably flat and tasteless now. Walter had been raised on the northern rivers and had practical talents. My understanding of watergoing craft you may judge by the fact that when my father dragged our newly purchased but second-hand canoe into the basement to get the thing out of his way, I expressed fear that the dampness might warp its shape. My method of preparation for the trial was to read books on “how to live in the forest,” while Walter simply went ahead collecting the instruments, equipment, and clothing which his experience and natural instinct told him would be required. I hadn’t the faintest conception of what we were really letting ourselves in for—nor, I suspected, had my parents, who let me go. I think Walter had, and I do know that with any other type of partner my parents
would have seen no more of me in the living state. But in the actual practice one learns rapidly, even a boy who cannot drive a nail straight nor chop wood for a fire without gashing his shins. At seventeen one’s capacity to absorb physical suffering is almost unlimited. Indeed, instead of breaking you down and wearing you out, it builds you up, hardens and knits your flesh together, makes you impervious to blazing sun, ants, mosquitoes and ticks, adjusts the pulmonary system to any number of freezing nights spent upon the soaking ground, grows tough calluses where blisters ought to be, and teaches your stomach to accept with relish any amount of lard, raw dough, burned beans, or even the flesh of carp, aged turtle, maggoty perch, muskrat, and porcupine. We paddled, that summer and fall, something more than twenty-two hundred miles. It was not so much a test of the body; the body takes care of itself at that age. It was a test of will and imagination, and they too, at seventeen, have a power and potency which rarely again return to a man in like measure. I would follow shock troops across a hundred invasion beaches before I would repeat that youthful experience of the rivers. I simply could not do it again. As it was, death came closer than we realized, not once but time after time. Undoubtedly we had pleasant days of keen delight; but the light strokes have nearly all vanished from the picture as my memory retains it, and I am conscious in recollection of a mood of emotional weariness, anxiety, and downright fear; there is a remembrance of endless dark days of dull plodding, on and on through an impenetrable veil of rain and forest. Mr. Hemingway can have the camping life. When you are lost, when you are hungry, when the rivers and woods become your enemy, waiting for you to die, none of the senses—not even literary—discovers pleasure. For years afterwards a visit to the woods produced a moment of nausea. We had overcome some thirteen hundred miles of the physical test when we encountered our first really serious obstacle, which was of course of a moral nature. It was a concerted attempt of older and wiser persons in Winnipeg, Canada, to dissuade us, “for our own good,” from attempting the vast lake and wilderness beyond. At the Winnipeg Canoe Club, impressively grown-up people took us aside and described the tendency of this body of water to develop sudden, unforeseeable 37
[in his own words]
squalls and storms, recounted the disturbing stories of canoeing friends who had disappeared forever along these rocky shores. As for the five hundred miles of (at that time) practically uncharted wilderness between the head of the lake and Hudson Bay, none of them had ever done that by canoe, and none, we were assured, would ever be foolish enough to try it. Neither Walter nor I was a particularly defiant or cocky youngster, and this offense against our will caused us many heartsick hours. But in the preceding weeks we had been gradually learning, though we had never objectively analyzed it, a fundamental lesson; we learned it the hard, empiric way. We learned that nearly all human beings get along without exact knowledge— indeed, that they seem to prefer inexactness, no doubt, because, to find the precise truth of any question, no matter how ordinary or near at hand, requires serious effort. We had discovered that almost nobody along the way, farmer or fisherman or camper, knew the precise nature—the currents, the rapids, the portages, the distances from point to point— of the very stretches of river or lake upon which they had spent their lives and all the secrets of which they were quite convinced they knew by heart. We learned, in effect, to distinguish between hearsay and fact. With feelings more of apology than confidence, we rejected the theories, the arguments, and the conclusions of our very well-meaning friends. When we stumbled upon a wizened old prospector in the government map bureau who knew part of the country we intended to traverse and who said we could probably make it provided we were not complete damn fools, that was all we needed to transform hope into belief. At the settlement of Norway House, at the northern end of the lake, we met exactly the same kind of moral offensive, this time of an even more serious nature. They pointed out to us that it was already the first of September. Our equipment, including our clothes, was summer equipment. The rivers in those latitudes freeze very early and very suddenly. If we knocked a hole in our canoe or overturned and lost it in the rapids, we would find it impossible to walk through the impenetrable brush along the river’s edge. Precise charts and maps existed only for the first two hundred or so of the five hundred miles we would have to paddle, and none was available for us. Even though we did reach Hudson Bay at York Factory, that place had been abandoned as a railway head, and there was no telling how we would be able to make it back inland, along 38
the Nelson River to the rail lines, ninety miles from the sea. It went on like this for two or three days, and at one point, I know, there was a conference with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who were responsible for human lives in the region, to decide whether they could or should forcibly prevent us from going on. We had decided that we could not descend the mighty Nelson River, which drains off Lake Winnipeg’s waters to the sea, because it was far too bewilderingly varied in its channels for anyone without a guide. (A guide was something our remaining fifteen dollars would scarcely pay for.) We could not take the old trading route of the Hayes River, because, as I remember, of the seasonal shallows. There was only one route remaining. This was to descend the Nelson a few miles, branch off into a long series of tiny lakes, some connected by channel, others only by overhill portages, navigate the twentyfive miles of God’s Lake, descend the God’s River until it became the Shamattawa and then the Hayes, and so into the Bay at York Factory. The crude maps we had with us covered only to a line halfway across God’s Lake. Again we found the same situation we had encountered at Winnipeg. Nobody at Norway House, white man or Indian, had ever actually made the trip to the Bay via God’s River. But again we found a man who believed it could be done. He was a young Danish trapper of clear intelligence and warm heart. He had no maps to give us, but he had been fifty miles or so down the length of God’s River, where he had still had a winter cabin, unvisited for a year. He was not certain, but he believed that the river reached the Shamattawa in a single channel, with no insurmountable obstacles. He was alone in his sentiment, but he thought we could do it, assuming we were not injured or overturned in the rapids. But he made it clear that once we were well into the God’s River there was no turning back. We could never remount the savage current, and walking would be impossible until the ice froze thick—and we would probably not last that long. We left with an understanding that if no telegram was received from us after three weeks had passed, our people in Minneapolis should be informed that we were missing, when, if my father could raise the money, a search would presumably be organized. At daybreak, in cold, drizzling rain, we pushed away from the wharf at Norway House. No one was about save an elderly Cree male who squatted under an upturned skiff on the
[in his own words]
rocks, chewed on a large bone, and regarded us with impassivity. We fell into our accustomed rhythm of paddling which had become an automatic reflex of the muscles. The current moved us rapidly and the curtain of spruce and tamarack closed around us. I had no sensations of bravado and derring-do. I was scared and I knew it. I was experiencing that indefinable feeling which comes to most soldiers at some unpredictable moment in war, the feeling of having pushed one’s luck too far. It was our will that drove us on into this thing, and yet it was something else too—something akin to fear, which also has its propulsive and creative properties. (Ten years later someone under the London blitz—Ed Murrow, I think—said: “I have never gone down into a shelter, because I was afraid to. I was afraid of myself; I feared that if I did it once I could not stop doing it.”) What I was entering upon at Norway House was a contest with myself. I knew instinctively that if I gave up now, no matter what the justification, it would become easier forever afterwards to justify compromise with any achievement. A few days passed; the nights grew colder. We came upon a French Canadian priest from the mission at Island Lake, making his way by canoe in the other direction, “going out” after five years in the bush. His eyes were a watery blue, some of his teeth were gone, and his beard had dirty streaks of gray. He looked fifty and was thirty. We shot snipe and duck and got lost. Men who have experienced varieties of lostness tell me that the worst is to be lost on a large body of water, when the horizon is the same in every direction and you haven’t the slightest idea which direction to select. They are probably right, but I would not care again to go through a couple of back-breaking days of stumbling, dragging a loaded canoe up one narrow stream channel, then another, then another, to find them all eventually become mere seepage from the rocky ground. The stomach becomes very undependable and you want to vomit. After a while you would just like to sit and cry. But you drag around and eventually, by the simple process of elimination, you find the proper channel. Our maps proved almost useless, and we would certainly have got lost time and again in this series of small streams and miniature, rockbound lakes if it had not been for our good fortune to be overtaken by a freight canoe bound for the trading post on God’s Lake. Two Indians were taking in the new post manager. Most young men who enter the
fur-collecting service of the Hudson’s Bay Company come from Scotland, and they are all called Jock. All the Cree Indians in this happy hunting ground of the missionary have biblical names; these two were Moses and James. We were quite welcome to trail along behind them. We were expert canoeists by this time, and we had little trouble staying with them on the water, but on the half-mile-long portages, which frequently led over ninety-degree crags, it was a desperate business. Indians can take up to two hundred and fifty pounds on their backs, secured with nothing but a flat tump line around their foreheads. And they do not walk; they run. By the time Walter and I had transported all our gear to the far side and thrown our aching bodies to the ground, our traveling companions would have finished their meal and pushed off again. In fear of getting lost again, we would throw our things into our craft and take out in pursuit, cramming handfuls of cold beans into our
Eric and Walt during during canoe trip.
[in his own words]
mouths between strokes of the paddle. This went on for five or six days. On the morning of the day we expected to hit the lake, we lost them completely. God’s Lake contains some five thousand spruce-covered islands, all looking exactly alike. If you can tell from hour to hour which is island and which is the main shore, you are doing very well indeed. But we knew the approximate location of the trading post, we had a compass, and we had learned to paddle in such exact measure that we knew precisely how many strokes of the paddle we required to cover a mile in still water. In the darkness, we eventually glimpsed the light. Jock had his feet up on the table when we entered, a little embarrassed. “Excuse me,” he said. “You’ve got a long way to go on your own you know. I figured if you could get through that stretch alone we could let you try for the Bay. A lot of people at Norway House think you are crazy bastards, you know.” To cross the lake we used the same method of dead reckoning, logging by paddle stroke. We had one point of reference: Elk Island, not far from the outlet to the God’s River, had recently been burned off. It was the largest island on the lake, some twelve miles long itself. We wound in and out among the maze of smaller islands, and at noon, on schedule, we reached this smoldering island. We worked around it all afternoon and camped on its eastern tip that night. (We were probably the first Americans to ever see this particular place. There are millions of islands in the Canadian lakes, but Elk Island on God’s Lake has a rather special place in my mind for the reason that some two years after we had obtained a night of dreamless slumber on its granite ledges, a lot of other people obtained their fortunes in the quartz gold those ledges contained. It was the biggest gold strike Canada had experienced in years. I hope our Danish trapper friend was in on it. A village sprang up there, and no doubt the wild run down the God’s River to Hudson Bay became a concession for excursionists—the portages, for all I know, paved with flagstone and marked with neon lights.) In the morning we cut straight north until we hit what we were convinced was the main shore of the lake. We skirted about and finally noticed that the grasses on the bottom of the clear shallows were all bending in one direction. Very shortly we were in the unmistakable current and were sucked into God’s River at its source. The sun was shining that day and we were happy. It was the last time the sun shone, and the last time we felt happy until the whole enterprise was over. The intervening period was and is unsurpassed in my life for sheer, concentrated misery. We had not progressed a mile on this rushing surface before the river collapsed with a roar over a ten-foot ledge, very nearly carrying us with it.
[in his own words]
Ahead, on the bend, we could see spouting white spray that meant another waterfall. We knew we were in for a struggle. The second sickening discovery was that the portage trails, even in this first stretch where our Danish advisor had traveled, were so overgrown with brush, so cluttered with fallen trees, that the paths frequently were impossible to find. This meant slashing away brush with our knives until our knuckles bled, hacking at the logs with an ax that was far too light for the job, then hoisting, dragging, and shoving an awkward, eighteen-foot canoe. We went through this performance innumerable times, always in freezing rain and fog. A half-day’s labor to accomplish a two-hundred-yard portage was a normal requirement. We had been warned of the time when the rains would come, but nothing in our experience had prepared us for this. Day and night, the drizzle did not cease for so much as an hour. With the rain, the water we shipped over the gunwales in the fast stretches, and the water that seeped through the many cuts in the bottom of the craft, our equipment sloshed about constantly, our clothing and food were soaked through. There was nothing to be done about it. Our blankets were equally soaked. The woods oozed with water, every leaf held a pond, every dead twig and log was rotten with wetness. In order to build a fire at night we would have to stop paddling in midafternoon, then spend two or three hours whittling out chunks of heart wood. Not even birchbark would burn. In our wet clothes we slept, wrapped in wet blankets, with only the edges of our rubber ponchos pulled over our faces. We began to notice, in the morning, light trimmings of frost on the ponchos, and one morning Walter beckoned me to the edge of the river. There, in a quiet eddy, was a faint film of ice. Our daily progress was heartbreakingly slow, and we were becoming obsessed with the urge to get on, to get on. We did not stop at noon any more, but ate, as we worked, a few cold pancakes saved over from the night, and a few beans and dried prunes. We were falling far behind our expected schedule, and our food was giving out. We were forced to pause for fish. One cast of the hook, with a piece of white cloth as bait, would bring a three-pound speckled trout in these unfished waters. I remember Walter gripping one by the head in his teeth, his bleeding hands too stiff with cold to hold the slimy creature. We passed each day in silent anxiety. We rarely spoke.
Our fear of being caught by the ice or running entirely out of food before we reached a settlement overrode our fear of the rapids. We took greater and greater chances. Frequently, now, instead of getting out to reconnoiter a stretch of rock and flying white spray, whoever was in the stern would simply stand as we drifted in, make a quick survey, a quick decision, and then we would drive in to our opening. You must move at greater speed than the current if you are to have leverage to throw your canoe about among the rocks. We had already lost our extra paddle, and now we shattered the tip of one of the two remaining. We got along with it, somehow; it would have been a day’s work to fashion a substitute, however crude. We run into shallows and for two days waded, dragging and lifting the canoe and its load. Once we carried the canoe over our heads a quarter-mile along a six-inch ledge on a sheer bank of greasy clay, twenty feet above the water. Once, while we were crawling on our bellies over an enormous granite boulder, slipping the floating canoe along below us with a rope, Walter lost his grip. He fell backwards, executed a quick flip in midair, and landed on all fours in the bottom of the canoe without overturning it. One day we heard again the dull roaring the signified a waterfall ahead. But this time it was something new: the river had suddenly narrowed to one third its width and plunged through a rocky gorge, corrugated into four-foot waves. That, we could manage. But after roaring through the gorge, the river struck, almost at right angles, a solid wall of rock before careening into its normal shape. We were beyond all prudence by this time. Walter’s back and the canoe itself disappeared for a few seconds from my sight in a white world of spray. Dipping a paddle was like offering a torrent a toothpick. (Have you ever heard the blood pound in your head?) The next sight was the black wall rushing upon us. We flayed the water, attempting to swing the canoe, did swing it, then, together, at the same instant, flung up the paddle blades as if they were lances, and absorbed the numbing shock in our arms and shoulders. The river reached junction with a creek which poured in at the right hand. This should have been the location of the Dane’s cabin. We searched through a morass of blackened, falling spruce and sodden ash. Either the fire that had obviously swept through the area some weeks before had eliminated every log of the cabin, or this was not the place, and we were very far, perhaps fatally far, 41
[in his own words]
behind schedule. We did not speak that day or evening; we were reaching a danger point of the spirit, when something was certain to happen. Readers who have experienced a long period in the wilderness with only one other companion, no matter how intimate a friend, will have been waiting for this. The pattern is a common one. Walter and I had different natures; he was more healthily extrovert than I, and his emotions demanded a physical outlet. I would simply stifle mine and brood. He had French blood and I Norwegian, and perhaps that helps explain why my anger could be suppressed and his could not. As always, in these situations, a trifle becomes the occasion for the explosion, though the causes are far more complex. We had reached that point where one feels the sick bitterness in his heart even before he is fully awake in the morning. The explosion came one morning after our profound disappointment at missing the cabin of the Dane. His first words to me in twenty-four hours were: “Why don’t you wash that goddam pan the way it ought to be washed?” I forgot mine to him. He was walking toward me, and I knew this was it. When I reach a physical crisis, there is always a brief moment of panic succeeded by a cold period of abnormal mental clarity. I was conscious, not of his doubled fists, but of the forest, the river, the distance. This would be the end. I said: “Wait until we get out of here.” But in a moment we were hammering and clawing, ripping one another’s sodden clothing, rolling and kicking through the ashes of the campfire. Walter had the deep chest and heavy arms of an athlete, but I was taller and broader, and three months of exertion had done unsuspected things to my thin muscles. Neither of us could manage to defeat the other, which saved the situation, since the loser would very probably have been killed. We lay a long time, in the drizzling rain, quite spent. I began to break up; I thought about my mother, started to cry inside, and said over and over again to myself: “I’m too young to die.” Eventually, our flesh became chilled, we entered the canoe, avoiding each other’s eyes. Within eight hours we overtook the first human being we had seen for two weeks, a Cree family in a freight canoe; within nine we were upon the Shamattawa; within ten hours we were eating roasted duck before a great fire in a temporary trading shack, just opened by two young Scotsmen from York Factory. Rolled in dry blankets before the fire, the two of us discussed with excitement the 42
approaching end of our trip. We were fast friends; we were less than twenty. Having received bad advice—or, what was more likely, having misunderstood—we ran, on the wrong side, the two-mile-long Shamattawa Rapid, of local fame. Two Indians had just died in it, on the proper side. There was one bad moment when the canoe lodged on an underwater ledge and began, quite audibly, to crack apart. The forests fell away, we reached the wide Hayes River, tried to sleep on a bank of wet clay, which was exactly like reclining on a cake of ice, gave it up, and gulping six prunes and three raw potatoes, almost the last of our provisions, we set out in pitch darkness. We paddled, without pause, nearly sixty miles that day. We smelled the sea all afternoon, struggled with a mysterious force which we did not realize was the incoming tide, and at darkness came abreast of the low huddle of white buildings which is the old trading establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. A schooner rode at anchor. It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean. Factor Harding of York Factory was a warm host and wise counselor. For weeks he had been keeping our mail, including a check for fifty dollars from the Minneapolis newspaper, wondering who we were and from what point of the compass we were expected to materialize. He was very decently composed and signed a testimonial to the effect that we had indeed reached York Factory by canoe. He also gave us thirty dollars for the worthless canoe, inasmuch as we would need cash for guides to take us over to Port Nelson, on the far side of the Nelson River, which entered the sea here, just around the headlands. An Englishman was present, Colonel Reid, an official of the Company, who had just arrived on the schooner from London. I had never seen an Englishman before. He appeared, with his gray tweed sports clothing and pipe exactly as the movies had taught me to expect an Englishman to appear. His accent, also, was exactly right. He said: “Minneapolis? Where the deuce is Minneapolis?” He said: “Twenty-two hundred miles by canoe? But what on earth for?” Being seventeen, the world fascinated me just the way it was, and I accepted it the way it was. The Cree Indians in these sprawling little settlements interested me as a people, as Persons. I certainly thought of this immense northern region as “their country,” and if they were in rags, if their cabins and tepees were cesspools of stench
[in his own words]
and many of the Indians themselves rotten with disease, why, that was just the way they were. They must like it that way, it must be due to the charming laziness of their idyllic forest life. I thought the “bishops” and “deacons” brave self-sacrificing men to come to these lost places and teach the natives to mouth the words and chants of rituals which would of course preserve their immortal souls. It never occurred to me that there was a chain of causation and purpose uniting the deacons, the red-coated police, and Colonel Reid in one system, and that the nexus was the stack of mink, otter, and beaver skins in the wooden warehouse. When I observed Colonel Reid strolling straight through a group of Indians on the boardwalk, without the slightest hesitation in his deliberate stride, without the faintest suggestion in his countenance that he was aware of their existence, it left an impression somewhere in the back of my mind—but I did not know what I was really seeing, what I was to see later in many parts of the world. I had never heard of Imperialism. I did not know there were whole races and classes of people living in the relationship of master and slave and that this coexistence conditioned the members of each group in their very bodies, the working of the eyes, the carrying of the shoulders, the timbre of the voice box, the whole interfunctioning of the nervous system. With two Indian guides provided by Harding we remounted the Hayes a few miles in a freight canoe, then struck across the five-mile neck of land, floundering in the muskeg morass to our knees for most of the hike, in the course of which Walter badly wrenched a leg. We were paying the guides; had we been born in the milieu of Colonel Reid, we would simply have ordered the guides to take Walter’s pack and slow down their killing pace. That never occurred to us. We were the strangers, in their land, and it was a point of honor and duty to live up to their standards. By the time we had traversed the turbulent four-mile width of the Nelson River estuary in another canoe and began the walk against driving rain into the settlement, each step for Walter was an agony. We carried a letter from Harding to the Mounted Police of Port Nelson, the only white men who lived in this abandoned railroad terminal of scraggly shacks and rusted machinery. The policemen were away on a hunting trip. There was no possibility, given Walter’s condition, of our being able to walk ninety miles up the disused roadbed to the Hudson Bay Railway. A return to York Factory would serve no purpose. We found, at length, an evil-looking half-breed who was going “up to steel” with a
compatriot, in two motor-driven canoes. It was a three-day trip. There was a heavy snowfall. There were many hours of poling up through the rapids, of “tracking” the heavy canoes by rope and pole from the shoreline. Walter’s leg grew worse, and he subsided into silent suffering. I lost the heels from my rotted boots and drove a boot nail deeply into my foot during a long stretch of tracking when it was impossible to halt. For several days we rested in the shack of a lonely old Swede whose duty it was to patrol and watch one section of the rail line. He bathed and bound our injuries while we went through his library, which consisted of the Bible, the Essays of Emerson, and several small blue pamphlets on healthy sex relations. He wept a little when we climbed aboard the next freight train to come through from Churchill, and wrote to us for months thereafter. One long night of blinding snow we huddled on the tender of a freight locomotive as it whistled and clanked through the Saskatchewan forests. There were two roustabouts lying beside us that night, and when we reached our destination at dawn we had to hand them down from their tender as you would a frozen log. To a pockmarked Chinese we paid fifty cents for fried eggs and a bed, and at noon we were roughly shaken awake by a broad-faced Chinese girl who informed us other voyagers were waiting for the bed. She remained in the room, leaning on a mop, observing us with quiet deliberation as we dressed. A highway reached to this point, hitchhiking was easy and pleasant, and thus we went home. A boy does not grow up so imperceptibly that there are not sudden moments when he is acutely conscious of change within him. I walked, carrying my pack and paddle, toward my father’s house, past the castellated red-brick high school, scattering the drifts of dry autumn leaves with my broken boots. The boys and the girls on the sidewalk seemed unprecedentedly young.
We had paddled a canoe twenty-two hundred miles, had survived, and had proved nothing except that we could paddle a canoe twenty-two hundred miles, a capacity of extraordinarily small value for the future. My chief return on this investment, outside of a fleeting local notoriety which got me a job on a newspaper—as office boy—was that for several months thereafter, until sedentary habits softened my flesh, my older brother could not lick me. 43
[in his own words]
The Taming of a Dream By George Scialabba Author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? Saints are usually killed by their own people. -Eric Sevareid
In Democratic Vistas (1867), his immortal paean to American promise, Walt Whitman celebrated an ideal to which, he claimed, the American West at least sometimes approximated: I can conceive a community, to-day and here, in which, on a sufficient scale, the perfect personalities, without noise, meet; say in some pleasant western settlement or town, where a couple of hundred best men and women, of ordinary worldly status, have by luck been drawn together, with nothing extra of genius or wealth, but virtuous, chaste, industrious, cheerful, resolute, friendly and devout. I can conceive such a community organized in running order, powers judiciously delegated â€” farming, building, trade, courts, mails, schools, elections, all attended to; and then the rest of life, the main thing, freely branching and blossoming in each individual, and bearing golden fruit. I can see there, in every young and old man, after his kind, and in every woman after hers, a true personality, developâ€™d, exercised proportionately in body, mind, and spirit. I can imagine this case as one not necessarily rare or difficult, but in buoyant accordance with the municipal and general requirements of our times. And I can realize in it the culmination of something better than any stereotyped eclat of history or poems. Perhaps, unsung, undramatized, unput in essays or biographies â€” perhaps even some such community already exists, in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, or somewhere, practically fulfilling itself, and thus outvying, in cheapest vulgar life, all that has been hitherto shown in best ideal pictures. 44
Riding the rails, 1933.
[in his own words]
[in his own words]
... and we seemed to be alone, on the summit of the world.
In the middle of the next century, a son of one of those Western communities looked back on his boyhood and remembered something not unlike what Whitman had foreseen: We were a true democracy in that huddled community of painted boards. … There were, of course, differences in degree of material wealth. There were what was always referred to as the “well-to-do,” and we had a few families “on the other side of the tracks.” No doubt there was envy at times and small bitternesses here and there. But no man lived in fear of another. No man had the power to direct another to vote this way or that. No impenetrable combine could foist a candidate upon the people if they did not wish, and it would have been quite impossible to rig an election and get away with it. This was an agrarian democracy, which meant there was no concentration of capital goods, which meant in turn, since we had no all-powerful landlords, that no class society based on birth or privilege had a chance to develop. … No virtue was made of poverty … but to be poor was no disgrace. Later I read all the exalting literature of the great struggle for a classless society … It occurred to me then that what men wanted was Velva, on a national, on a world, scale. For the thing was already achieved, in miniature, out there, in a thousand miniatures scattered along the rivers and highways of all the West and Middle West. I was to hear [others] speak with a certain contempt of our Middle West … its dullness, its bedrock of intolerance. [But] we had, in those severely limited places, an intolerance also of snobbery, of callousness, of crookedness, of men who kicked other men around. The working of democracy is boring, most of the time, and dull compared with other systems, but that is a small price to pay for so great a thing. The rest of Eric Sevareid’s splendid memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, bears the impress of this noble prairie populism. The incidents of his early life are set down with a wry but still glowing moral fervor: the abject poverty of the despoiled Cree Indians he encountered on his astonishing 2200-mile canoe trip with a high-school friend; the rough-and-ready egalitarianism of mine scavengers in the Sierra Nevada and hobos on the railroad boxcars he bummed back to the Midwest; his shocked discovery as a cub reporter that “nearly all men working in a large American concern did their daily work under the tyranny of fear”; the camaraderie of the undergraduate radicals in the “Jacobin Club” at the University of Minnesota; the young Sevareid’s disillusion when administrators’ machinations cost him the coveted editorship of the college newspaper. Later in the book, his indignation over the treatment of Southern Negroes and his anguish over victorious America’s apparent preference for dealing with former collaborators rather than leftist partisans are eloquently rendered. Though the teeming memoir was dashed off in six months – by a mere thirty-three year-old – it did not lack literary qualities. The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling, whose war writings have been collected in a Library of America volume, is usually considered the most accomplished of World War II correspondents. But compared with Sevareid’s taut narrative, pulsing with moral drama, psychological insight, and colorful incident, Liebling’s prose seems mannered, too sly by half. Which is not to say that Sevareid was incapable of lyricism or wit. En route to China, his transport plane went down. Sevareid and most of the other passengers and crew managed to parachute. Here is his description of their rescue, after twelve days in the Burmese jungle, by a British official and a party of natives: They came as the light was dimming away. The mist was spread below us, and we seemed to be alone, on the summit of the world. A low chanting sound came from beneath the cloud layer, growing louder and louder until it seemed that a subterranean forest of voices was rising to engulf us. Dark,
[in his own words]
glistening bodies appeared from the ravine, more and more of them, flooding among us and surrounding our space of habitation. A tall, slim young man wearing a halo of shining fair hair, carrying the mystery of civilization in his casual posture and soft blue eyes, materialized from the void. He was standing at our gate, smiling gently, like a stranger in the countryside, out for a stroll and dropping in with an air almost of apology. He was garbed in a soft blue polo shirt, blue shorts, and low walking shoes. His legs were bronzed and firm. From his smiling lips drooped a long cigarette holder. He was Philip Adams, the Sahib of Mokokchung, king of these dark and savage hills.
Left to right: Edward Murrow, Charles Collingswood, Eric Sevareid.
After a short stay in India and a longer stay in China, he reported in Not So Wild a Dream, his â€œbasic beliefs in the liberal approaches were deeply shaken.â€? Were the democratic ideals he revered of any use in this hungry, crowded half of the world? Might the coercive methods of Communism be, in these desperate circumstances, a lesser evil? He confronted these questions sensitively and fearlessly:
[in his own words]
For the present I find myself divided, not only between political liberalism and cultural conservatism, but I find myself politically liberal on domestic affairs and increasingly conservative on foreign affairs. The great aim of freedom in security for the individual seemed to me universal and eternally right. As for the methods, however, it seemed clear that there was a time-space equation involved which could not be ignored. … Half the human race was barefoot, filthy, sick, and worried from morning till night, from birth until death, over no other problem than simply finding food for their bellies. The truth was that, no matter how ruthless the effort might be, nothing could be worse than the present condition. And maybe in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, these hundreds of millions would be able to live, to be clean and whole, to rise above their animal state and walk as men. True, there was danger that the means would become the end. But it seemed to me that the risk was worth the taking.
In retrospect, a question occurs to anyone pondering twentieth-century American history: why did such openness of mind and generosity of spirit as this so rarely find expression in the new mass media? Even Sevareid himself seldom if ever in his broadcasting career matched the admirable blend of discrimination and passion that makes Not So Wild a Dream an inspiration, even now. With honorable exceptions, he seemed in his broadcasts to have exchanged the searching critical spirit of his first mentor, Edward R. Murrow, for the bland centrism of Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Like the latter, he became an insider, his perspectives and values fatally shaped by what they all regularly, knowingly referred to as “the mood here in Washington.” The price of respectability in American public discourse has always been an unwillingness to question the good intentions of US foreign policy. Of course everyone agrees that the U.S. has made mistakes abroad, out of naivete, impatience, or short-sightedness. But to deny that American international behavior is fundamentally idealistic, is sincerely devoted to spreading democracy and freedom everywhere, without regard to the commercial or strategic interests of those who wield domestic power in the United States—this is heresy. It is anti-American, irresponsible, beyond the pale. Sevareid largely accepted this conventional wisdom. Like Lippmann and Reston, he was a Cold War liberal. He scoffed at “the mea culpa open letters one is asked to sign by high-minded American professors deploring the principle of the Cuban invasion attempt”—the principle, that is, that the U.S. has every right to disregard international law and the UN Charter. (Alas, if more people had joined back then in deploring that “principle,” even graver US crimes in Vietnam and Iraq might have been prevented.) He reassured nervous Brazilians that “we have no designs on Latin America save its stability and security”—this less than a decade after the U.S. shocked all of Latin America by organizing the overthrow of the newly elected reformist government of Guatemala and two years before the U.S. supported a military coup in Brazil that that imposed a harsh right-wing dictatorship on that country. He urged “African nationalists” to “abandon their comfortable hatreds” and admit that “the British and the French … truly are moving out of Africa, truly do seek free and viable African states”—this just four years after the British and French invaded Suez and a year before the U.S. and Belgium organized the murder of Patrice Lumumba and the breakup of the Congo. He lamented that “the generous humanitarian American formula for saving underdeveloped countries from Communist upheaval”—a formula that in fact included frequent armed intervention, CIA subversion, and steady support for anti-democratic military commanders —“cannot work in a good many such countries” and professed himself “impatient” with the frivolous notion that we might succeed better abroad through “more exemplary conduct at home … and by ceasing to support the local dictators.” Joseph Alsop or William F. Buckley, Jr., could not have put it better. It is not what one would have expected from the former doyen of the Jacobin Club. What happened? Introducing his major collection, This Is Eric Sevareid, he faced this question. “For the present I find myself divided, not only between political liberalism and cultural conservatism, but I find myself politically liberal on domestic affairs and increasingly 48
conservative on foreign affairs.” He had, he suggested, been naïve. Time and travel had taught him that Communism was more dangerous and the Third World more corrupt than he and other left-liberals had suspected. If this was apostasy, it was honestly come by and modestly asserted. He did not, at least, become a neoconservative. Another remark in that Introduction also revealed that he’d come a long way from Velva. “It has become harder to believe that if only the people are given the truth, they will do the right thing, that some kind of folk instinct is better than expertise and aristocracy of wisdom and taste.” This is rank Lippmannism. Surely Sevareid had spent too much time in Washington, among the “experts” who managed to squander, in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, so much of this country’s blood, wealth, and reputation. In any case, whether “the people are given the truth” was not up to Sevareid, as he knew all too well. Raymond Schroth’s biography tells of a confrontation between Sevareid and CBS chief William Paley in 1956 over a broadcast criticizing the State Department, which Paley ordered killed. The two men sat there across from one another. … Paley had, as usual, the upper hand. … Despondent, Sevareid broke the silence. “Maybe I’ve been too long with CBS.” Paley just sat there silently looking at him – a signal that, yes, it was time for Eric Sevareid to resign. But he didn’t.
Eric Sevareid, 1947
Two years later, Paley again demonstrated his unfitness for his position by terminating Edward R. Murrow’s great series See It Now, telling Murrow: “I don’t want this constant stomach-ache every time you do a controversial subject.” “It goes with the job,” protested Murrow, who apparently hadn’t learned that the job of publishers and media executives is to please advertisers and shareholders, not to see that “the people are given the truth.” It’s a pity that Murrow and Sevareid, with their extraordinary talents, had to spend so much of their professional lives working for someone with a weak stomach. But that’s journalism, then and now.
[fierce prairie populism]
The Land That Shaped the Thinking of Eric Sevareid By Ray Penn
With breathtaking rapidity, we are destroying all that was lovely to look at and turning America into a prison house of the spirit. -Eric Sevareid
After traveling the world to interview people living under various forms of government, Eric Sevareid reached this conclusion: “What men [in other countries] really wanted was Velva, North Dakota.” When Sevareid sought to explain why American journalists were so aggressive in seeking “the unornamented truth” from world leaders while other journalists “approached them with timid genuflection” he pointed to the fact that American journalists had their “beginnings in a hundred Velvas,” places where pretentious people were not respected. Unlike those whose veneration of smaller places and simpler times reached no deeper than the level of nostalgia—an emotion that rarely motivates a person to
change the future—Sevareid repeatedly argued that the health of small towns directly affected the health of a nation. He argued that to ignore the values learned in the hundreds of Velvas across the nation would place the American spirit in peril. When others decried rural towns as places where imagination was suffocated by the thin air of ignorance and strangled by a rigid anti-intellectualism, Sevareid argued that “small towns are not stagnant plants. . . but seedbeds, ceaselessly renewing themselves, their seed constantly renewing the nation. They are not quiet, fixed and static but vital as life itself, pulsating with the lives that come to them and the lives they give away.” Sevareid was a philosopher, a practical philosopher. He would not have had the patience to interview Immanuel Kant or Rene Descartes. He would have been frustrated by
[fierce prairie populism]
their esoteric ways. He would have delighted, however, in the opportunity to interview Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. For they were practical philosophers and their self-appointed aim to apply deep wisdom to everyday life was exactly the mission Sevareid took upon himself. The difference between an esoteric philosopher and a practical philosopher is easy to explain. I keep a marble doorknob on my desk as a reminder of my days spent working in my grandmother’s country store. An esoteric philosopher would look at that doorknob and ponder whether reason and sense impressions make it possible or impossible to know if such a doorknob really exists. A practical philosopher would look at that doorknob and note that it expresses true wisdom:
much of our lives is shaped by the doorknobs we turn and the doorknobs we don’t turn.
Sevareid would agree that if a philosopher can’t tell you what doorknobs to turn, then that philosopher is a poor one.
Although Sevareid left Velva, Velva never left him. The town and the land around it shaped the way he thought. In fact, I believe that if Sevareid had had his way, every American would have been cycled through Velva for a year to wash away the dirt of modernity and be tutored in the ways of true democracy. Let us first think about the ways North Dakota shaped the way he thought. When you live in a place where so much of the sky meets so much of the land, you cannot help but carry a hunger for taking the long view of things wherever you go. When all ground is in the foreground and the background is the sky itself, you cannot focus narrowly on any single event. Sevareid fueled each radio or TV broadcast with an innate desire to relate human life to the “big sky” forces bearing down upon it. Just as wind patterns, rainfall, and days of sunshine determine much of farm life, so the shifting winds of ideas and the shifting
[fierce prairie populism]
What men [in other countries] really wanted was Velva, North Dakota. actions of politicians determine much of American life. Sevareid was parodied as “Eric Severalsides.” But if you are continually exposed to enough space to explore around the town you live in, seeing it not only from several sides but seeing those sides against the background of a changing sky, that experience can only make you intuitively sense any truth must be a multifaceted truth. If you farm or just hang around the edges of farming, you absorb a form of hopefulness that has suffered enough never to be grandiose but has been proved right enough never to be fatalistic. Sevareid expressed this by noting that he was by nature “pessimistic about tomorrow but optimistic about the day after tomorrow.” Returning to Velva meant remembering days in which “men lived so close to God’s will in those prairie places.” It was “a trial of the human spirit just to live there and a triumph of faith and fortitude for those who stayed on through the terrible blasting summer winds… and through the frozen darkness of the winters when the deathly mourn of the coyote seemed at times the only signal of life.” As a boy Sevareid was surrounded by farmers who, regardless of the type of crop they had just raised, talked in hush tones about “tomorrow and tomorrow.” The hopefulness of a farmer is fed by several tributaries: the tributary of sheer endurance (a spirit of just doing what has to be done), the tributary of duty (someone must feed the
nation), and the tributary of reverence (some force in the soil and perhaps beyond the soil is more in favor of life and growth than death and decay). Sevareid was born into a time and place where one’s sense of timeliness was shaped by daylight and darkness. Being “on time” did not require strapping artificial time on your wrist; it simply meant looking around for the rising of the sun or the falling of darkness. Because of this Sevareid often railed at the soul-sapping pace of city life. He no doubt would have agreed with Carl Jung who is reported to have said: “business is not of the devil; it is the devil!” This is confirmed by his quoting the longshoreman Eric Hoffer that “people in a hurry can neither grow nor decay; they are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.” If living today, Sevareid would note that it is not hard to find the cause of road rage. When a person lives in a nanosecond world for eight hours and then brings this sense of time to his or her commute home, the lack of sync between these “time zones” produces rage. North Dakota in Sevareid’s boyhood was very much like my boyhood on the prairie of Illinois. There was so much unoccupied space, a boy could escape the confines of the house and find a place to think great thoughts without having to explain to anyone what you were thinking about. There was no escape from solitude except through books which is basically an experience of guided solitude.
[fierce prairie populism]
For much of his life Sevareid hungered for more space. He noted that “space is the key to it all; I think most Americans are slowly suffocating for want of space whether they are aware of it or not. . .” He was speaking from personal experience when he wrote that “millions of us just don’t thrive, in spirit or in flesh, in the big city.” He writes this of the people of Velva: “people [there] are able to draw at least a little apart from one another. In drawing apart, they gave their best human instincts room for expansion.” What makes Sevareid’s veneration of nature unique is that he directly linked its preservation to the health of the human soul. If you define the soul as I do — the consciousness of everything that is real — then disease in the soul causes you live in an unreal world, a distorted world that has lacks depth and vastness. Sevareid, long before he interviewed Rachel Carson, could see this link between environment and soul. But it was the larger link between small-town living and the health of our nation’s spirit, the vitality of our villages and the vitality of our democracy, that Sevareid made more clearly than any other practical philosopher. Let us turn now to his basic argument. His argument that the health of the Velvas of this country affects directly the spirit of democracy is made in a single sentence. He writes: “democracy rests on social discipline, which in turn rests upon personal discipline—passions checked, hard words withheld, civic tasks accepted, work well done, accounting honestly rendered.” In a small town it is not only possible for an ordinary person to hold public office but it is necessary. Sevareid crafted a definition of democracy that keeps the linkage between rights and responsibilities in place. He slightly modified a definition that came from an interview he did with Robert Frost. Sevareid defines democracy as “feeling like oneself in harness.” In his mind democracy encourages freedom that is possible within the boundaries of duty but does not encourage the use of freedom to escape from duty. It was in Velva that he saw firsthand the truth about helping others: the closer people are to a problem, the greater their generosity. He wrote: “Human nature is everywhere the same. He who is not forced to help his neighbor . . .will give him not only help but his true good will as well. When the
citizens of Velva saw the need for health care, they not only raised money to bring two doctors to the community but also built them houses.” It is in small-town life that Sevareid found the key to the makeup of true heroes. He wrote: “I had always had a kind of reverence for brilliance, eloquence and physical bravery; I have come to have even more for that quality the Romans called gravitas—patience, stamina, weight of judgment. This is the essential quality of the truly strong, our preservers.” I have often found it better to leave readers with the companionship of good questions than sitting under the tyranny of simplistic conclusions. Certainly the major question is: does the withering of rural America mean the withering of the American spirit? Or, cast another way, if we could revitalize rural life, would a revitalization of the American spirit follow? Other questions abound. If not everyone can be recycled through Velva, how do we create a Velva-like experience for children; how do we help them see democracy being done by average people? How do we place children in the wideness of nature and encourage them to befriend solitude? How do we bring practical wisdom to children when they have acclimated to think that anything new is automatically better than that which has stood the test of time? How do we encourage the value of self discipline in a world where people live under the banner of maximum returns for minimum work? How do we encourage a bit of Scandinavian reserve in a world where harsh words are never withheld and passions are never blocked? Perhaps the ultimate question for us is Sevareid’s ultimate question for himself: how do we awaken the world to the fact that what people really want is Velva? Ray Penn is John Wesley Hill professor of Philosophy, Religion and Communication Arts at Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tennessee. He has written a serious of essays on growing up in the Midwest called Bless, O Lord, This Fool and is seeking a publisher.
[fierce prairie populism]
The most distinguished hallmark of the American society is and always has been change. -Eric Sevareid
Eric Sevareid’s North Dakota connections are well known. His most public testimony to this fact is found in a 1946 memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, a 1956 Collier’s magazine article entitled “You Can Go Home Again,” and a 1988 public television program based on the earlier memoir. In all three accounts, Sevareid’s hometown of Velva is portrayed as a wonderful place and a model of an egalitarian community. In his memoir and in the script of the television program, Sevareid writes:
But the Collier’s article perhaps offers a more realistic portrayal of Velva. Like Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay on the significance of the frontier in explaining American history, “You Can Go Home Again” warrants re-reading, and I have often assigned it to students in classes on the twentieth-century West and the Great Plains. In it, Sevareid tells the lives of real people, contrasts his recollections with the present (circa 1955), realistically accounts for why people leave the small towns and countryside, and never is condescending to the culture from which he came. In its own way, it is a classic. Yet this insightful reminiscence overlooks some key historical developments that qualify Sevareid’s version of a small-town utopia —developments which, if included, suggest a more complex history for Velva, McHenry County (where Velva is located), and North Dakota. Velva was not an “island community” isolated from the larger world. The wheat that dominated the community and region tied them to this larger world of economy, culture and politics. Velva was in the orbit of Minot and the rural political culture of McHenry County, and that meant it was not immune or indifferent to the political radicalism that emerged in the early twentieth century and came to dominate North Dakota politics in the World War I era and immediate after. Sevareid’s hometown witnessed and participated
Eric Sevareid, 1980
Later, I read all the exalting literature of the great struggle for a classless society; later, I watched at first hand its manifestations in several countries. It occurred to me then that what men wanted was Velva, on a national, on a world, scale. For the thing was already achieved, in miniature, out there, in a thousand miniatures scattered along the rivers and highways of all the West and Middle West.
[fierce prairie populism]
in these insurgencies, and some of the participants were friends and acquaintances of the Sevareid families. Such developments, however, explain the North Dakota that Eric Sevareid never knew.
The North Dakota Eric Sevareid Never Knew By William C. Pratt
Velva and McHenry County were not a classless society in the 1910–1925 era when the Sevareids lived there. Local farmers resented the grain trade and railroads that set prices and rates that they felt were discriminatory and unfair. As a remedy, they joined a farm organization, the American Society of Equity, and encouraged the formation of co-operatives in Velva and other locales in the county. By 1917, Equity claimed 200 members locally. A key figure in this movement was A. W. Ditmer, the father of the local constable Sevareid describes in his 1956 Collier’s article. (The younger Ditmer actually was Velva’s police chief, not the constable.) Some of Equity’s supporters, including Ditmer, believed that bigger changes were needed, and they enlisted in the Socialist Party in the 1911–12 era. Realistically, Socialists never made a big splash politically in Velva and McHenry County— certainly not like in Minot, where earlier they had elected a mayor, or in Williams County, where they named the sheriff in three consecutive elections. But a rural district south of Velva had a Socialist school board in 1912, and Velva itself opted for a Socialist councilman later that year. The secretary of the party local in this era was Oscar Anderson, a jeweler with whom Sevareid visited when he returned to Velva in 1955. In 1914, Sevareid’s home town was the site of a well-publicized debate between a local Socialist farmer and a minister addressing the proposition: “Resolved, That there is more Christianity in Socialism than there is in the Church movement today.” The following year, Eugene Debs addressed a crowd of more than 400 in Velva at the party’s annual picnic. Debs had been the Socialist presidential candidate in 1912, when he attracted almost 6 percent of the vote nationally and carried three precincts in McHenry County. (The same year, Sevareid’s father was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the state senate.) But the most important political insurgency locally and statewide in this era was the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a topic Sevareid barely mentions in any of his written accounts. The only time the organization is mentioned is when he refers to Dr. “Duff” Aaker, a local iconoclastic doctor, who “could denounce the Republican party and vote Nonpartisan League—heresy among the businessmen—and get away with it.” A farmers’ movement, the NPL dominated North Dakota politics between 1916 and 1921, and McHenry County was in the thick of this story from the beginning. The initial organizing of the NPL took place in Margaret Township 55
[fierce prairie populism]
in adjoining Ward County. Probably the first county in the state, however, to be fully organized was McHenry. While this recruitment drive began in the northern section of the county, it quickly spread to other parts.
McHenry County proved to be a strong NPL county, and Equity members and former Socialists like Ditmer and Oscar Anderson backed the new cause, but so did many non-Socialists. The League had strong support in the rural districts. On the other hand, Sevareid’s father stood with NPL opponents and in 1921 signed a petition for the recall of League governor Lynn Frazier. That year, Frazier and other key NPL officials were recalled. North Dakota was a very polarized state in this era, one which journalist Mike Jacobs later refers to as “an era of class consciousness.” Yet nowhere in Sevareid’s written work on his North Dakota background does he acknowledge such controversy. Perhaps, one might suggest, he was very young at the time, just a kid, while these events unfolded. He certainly could not be expected to recall a debate between a Socialist farmer and a clergyman or a speech by Eugene Debs when he was two and three years old, and perhaps the debates over the NPL program and the 1921 recall election made little or no impression upon him as well. But by the 1930s, when Sevareid was a student at the University of Minnesota and later a reporter for the Minneapolis Journal, he was a great admirer of the state’s Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson. In his published memoir, he writes: “Floyd B. Olson . . . a towering, fearless, extraordinarily able man. . . . He was our particular hero.” To Sevareid, Olson was the the product of “a long third party tradition,” which included Charles Lindbergh, Sr., another figure he respected. What he does not mention in this discussion, however, is that the NPL was an important part of the background of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor movement. In fact, the party began as a coalition between the NPL and organized labor. The episode that attracted Sevareid to the senior Lindbergh is when he sought the 1918 Republican gubernatorial nomination as the NPL candidate. At that time, there was no real Farmer-Labor Party. Again, one might suggest that Sevareid had not studied up on the
Eric Sevareid, 1952, visiting with his early mentor, Bill Frances of the Velva Journal.
The NPL approach was not to form a third party, but to work through the primaries of the major political parties. In North Dakota, as a practical matter, this meant working through the Republican party, by obtaining nomination of candidates pledged to its platform. Espousing issues such as a state grain elevator, a state mill, state hail insurance and a state bank, the League met with great success at the ballot box, and was able to enact its basic program by 1919.
[fierce prairie populism]
origins of the Farmer-Labor movement while a college student; rather, he and others had been attracted by the contemporary political appeal of Floyd Olson, whom he felt “was almost certainly America’s greatest political orator of that time, not excepting Franklin Roosevelt.” But in his memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, he writes of an episode after being fired at the Minneapolis Journal: “I buried myself in the musty files of the state library for weeks, trying to piece together the history of the third party revolt in the Northwest. . . .” If he did in fact spend weeks studying this topic, it is difficult to imagine that such sources left out the role of the NPL. At one point Sevareid writes: “Minnesota to be sure is an exceptional state, politically speaking.” But how could he not know that his home state of North Dakota also was “an exceptional state, politically speaking?” The son of a banker, did he not know of the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned and-operated bank in the country?
Velva (not to mention McHenry County) for Sevareid was not a topic for historical research, but the source of boyhood memories of home and belonging.
It may be that he forgot or simply never knew of the extent of insurgent efforts in his native territory. (In regard to his 1946 memoir, he writes: “I was working almost entirely from memory, with few notes or diaries. . . .”) But whatever the case, this gap illuminates the difference between journalistic reminiscence and history. Memory, of course, is selective, and the purpose of recollection often molds what is recalled. Sevareid’s article in Collier’s, for example, brilliant as it may be, was written to treat the theme of leaving home and what it might mean to return years later. Velva (not to mention McHenry County) for Sevareid was not a topic for historical research, but the source of boyhood memories of home and belonging. Perhaps his banker father had commented at the dinner table about the Socialist or NPL predilections of neighbors and acquaintances. But whether or not he did, such topics are not found in Sevareid’s account. They should caution us about reminiscence, no matter how prominent the author, and encourage us to dig deeper and wider in our studies of small-town and rural communities. Sevareid’s writings on his North Dakota background, though selective, are insightful about small-town life and the changes that occurred by the mid-twentieth century. They tell that part of the story very well, yet at the same time they overlook developments that helped distinguish North Dakota’s twentieth-century history from that of the rest of the country.
William C. Pratt is professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a trustee of the Nebraska State Historical Society. He has published three articles in North Dakota History and serves on its editorial advisory board. In the spring of 2000, he was the Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer in American History at Moscow State University, and in the spring of 2007, he was a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Warsaw.
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Not So Wild a Dream:
The Legacy of Eric Sevareid A Free Public Humanities Symposium September 30 â€“ October 3, 2010 Sidney J. Lee Auditorium, Bismarck State College Bismarck, North Dakota The public is invited to attend any or all events. Registration is preferred, but not required. ndhumanities.org 877-462-8535
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Eric Sevareid broadcasting in the early 1960’s.
Sevareid in Italy, 1944.
I believe that the most important lesson Eric Sevareid taught television journalists is that even in television in the beginning is the word. Only a few television journalists today seem to accept that…this new breed of producers are verbophobes—people who fear talking heads on television as the ultimate turnoff—and photophiles—people who lust for pictures at all costs. But only rarely is a picture worth a thousand words—if your cameras happen to be there at assassinations, ten-alarm fires, hurricanes, volcanoes blowing their tops. What Severeid demonstrated night after night was that a couple of hundred words are worth a thousand pictures when the thoughts are those of a penetrating mind, accompanied by a brilliant ability to put those thoughts into just the right words. – Richard Salant, Men’s Club, Westport, Connecticut, October 15, 1992
Sponsored by: A joint project of the ND Humanities Council and the Dakota Insititute.
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Schedule of Events
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Eric Sevareid, 1941, with British officer.
11:00 a.m. Registration 12:30 p.m. Welcome 1:00 p.m. Ray Penn “The Philosopher for the Common Citizen” Eric Sevareid can take his place as a twentieth-century practical philosopher in the same league as Marcus Aurelius, Cicero and Epictetus. He often used the term “we” in his broadcast because he saw himself as speaking for the common person whose values and common sense could guide everyone (especially their political leaders) through tough times. He sought to describe the essential nature of democracy and the mission of America in the world. In doing so he made political philosophy accessible to his audience of voters.
2:00 p.m. John Maxwell Hamilton “Eric Sevareid and the Golden Age of Correspondence Memoirs” Waves of hopeful young journalists walked the streets of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Would-be foreign correspondents “rolled up in waves,” as an editor at the Paris Herald put it, in that city and throughout Europe. Some of the most important names of twentieth-century journalism—Eric Sevareid, William Shirer, and Dorothy Thompson, to name just a few—wandered in, as cubs, and left as lions. As correspondents who stood witness to events rushing the world to war, the memoirs they published after WWII dove below the surface of the news to seek its meaning. And although their books are largely forgotten, they are still a potential beacon for journalists seeking to recover the purpose and credibility they see slipping from their hands today.
3:15 p.m. Tom Isern “Little Folded Paws: Sevareid as Memoirist” Authors who have, as Bill Stafford says, come away from the plains seem compelled to explain, endlessly, where they come from and why they are the way they are. Eric Sevareid, in his autobiographical writings, is in the mainstream of this river of what may be called colonialist memoir. Velva, North Dakota, a great place to be from,
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Sevareid in London, 1960’s.
Eric Sevareid with his wife, Suzanne St. Pierre, 1989.
remains timelessly pickled in the writings of its famous native son. Authors, as memoirists, stray from historical reality. In light of these tendencies, is there much to learn from the memoirs of a personage such as Sevareid? Yes, because despite authorial intentions, memoirs tell truths to readers who listen.
4:00 p.m. Donovan Webster “Sevareid’s Adventure with the Naga Tribe in Burma” On August 2, 1943, print and CBS Radio correspondent Eric Sevareid was one of seventeen passengers who stepped aboard a new Allied C-46 to cross the “Burma Hump” into China. An hour into the flight the plane crashed into the mountains of Burma, and Eric and his fellow passengers were stranded at the mercy of the Naga tribe of headhunters for fifteen days. Safety lay hundreds of miles away in India, through hostile enemy terrain. Donavan Webster will recount Sevareid’s near-fatal plane crash and adventure with the tribe and the perilous trek out of danger.
5:00 - 5:15 p.m. Synthesis Keynote Address at Belle Mehus Auditorium 7:00 p.m. Bob Scheiffer “The Legacy of Eric Sevareid” When longtime CBS News television journalist Bob Schieffer joined the network’s Washington bureau in 1969, he joined the ranks of legends and legends-to-be, including Eric Sevareid, Dan Rather and Roger Mudd. “I’ll never forget the day I walked in there. It was like a little leaguer suddenly being called to pinchhit for Mickey Mantle in Yankee Stadium.” Forty years later, Schieffer is a legend in his own right and now occupies Eric Sevareid’s old office at CBS. “He was really my hero,” says Schieffer. “He was the one I kind of most wanted to be like… I still think of it as his office—I don’t think of it as my office. I feel very honored to be able to sit in the same room where he sat.” In his keynote address, Schieffer will share his memories of Sevareid and the lessons he learned from the legendary Murrow Boy.
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Schedule of Events
Friday, October 1, 2010
Eric, early 1980’s, in Aspen.
9:00 a.m. Welcome 9:30 a.m. Mark Bernstein “World War II on the Air” In 1937, Edward R. Murrow sailed to London to become chief CBS correspondent in Europe. Murrow—then 29—had never written a news story in his life. Three years later, his was among the world’s best-known voices. Murrow created the forms of broadcast journalism that stand to this day. He did this by recruiting a team of reporters who, in his words, could “think and write.” The first hired was William Shirer, later the famed author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The second was a North Dakotan, Eric Sevareid, who, postwar, would for decades be the editorial voice of CBS. Along with Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, and others, these were the voices that brought Americans at home the news from the front. This presentation will include audio segments of actual broadcasts.
11:00 a.m. Alan Bjerga “Severeid’s Washington Legacy: Enduring, or Obscured” As president of the National Press Club, Alan Bjerga is seeing a press corps that’s fractured, with a chorus of discordant voices and business models that’s leading to major shakeups related to job losses, the decline of major media institutions like Severeid’s CBS and the rise of bloggers, niche media and numerous tiny outlets of varying audience reaches and quality. So, what example does Eric Sevareid hold for today’s media? Bjerga will explore Eric Sevareid’s relevance for younger journalists working in traditional and newer forms of media today.
12:00 Lunch National Energy Center of Excellence (4th floor) Tickets for meal required
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Sevareid visiting Bill Frances at the Velva Journal, 1952.
Eric, age 12, second from top.
1 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. A recreation of the moment when broadcast news was born in the spring of 1938--not an imitation, but a live radio news roundup. Sirius (formerly NPR) anchor Bob Edwards will participate, and will make remarks about the Murrow Boys and broadcast journalism.
4:00 p.m. Raymond Schroth “Eric Sevareid and the Search for an American Identity” Eric Sevareid believed that the purpose of America was to be an American. He did his reasoning as an American intellectual, and in his mind being an American meant giving oneself over to the idea that at the core of our democracy is “the conscience of a people demanding the best of themselves.” It allowed Eric Sevareid to achieve the rarest and most sought-after ideal of journalism: He became America’s conscience staring back at the nation through the mirror of the media. Eric didn’t so much tell people what to think, as how to think critically and self reflectively as a nation. Raymond Schroth will examine Sevareid’s idea of America and discuss its relevance for today’s Americans.
5:00 - 5:15 p.m. Synthesis Keynote Address at Belle Mehus Auditorium 7 p.m. Nick Clooney “The Role of the Press in a Democratic Society” Gathering and delivering news has been Nick Clooney’s passion since he was a little boy in Maysville, Kentucky, listening to the unforgettable voices of Ed Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and William Shirer describing the panorams a of World War II on the radio. Drawing on his own experience Clooney will contextualize the ethics of journalism from WII through the present.
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Schedule of Events
Saturday & Sunday, October 2-3, 2010 Eighteen-year-old Eric fishing on God’s River.
9:00 a.m Welcome 9:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. The Chorus of America, 1963-1977 Assessing Eric Sevareid’s commentaries on America and the world on the CBS Evening News. Clips of Sevareid commentaries on a range of subjects, followed by panel discussion and exploration.
Sevareid and the Space Program Sevareid and Civil Rights
Sevareid and the Assassinations Sevareid and Vietnam
Sevareid and Watergate Sevareid the 60s’ Youth Movement
Panelists: T. Harrel Allen, Camille D’Arienzo, Craig Nelson, Randall Kennedy, Raymond Schroth, and others.
12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Lunch with Suzanne St. Pierre, National Energy Center of Excellence (4th floor) Tickets for meal required 1:30 p.m Dr. Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities “Sevareid and Civil Discourse in a Noisy Democracy” Eric Sevareid understood that words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify—or cloud—thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts. In the current political climate of America words like “fascist” or “communist” are being used with increasing frequency and creating a culture of incivility. Jim Leach will explore Eric Sevareid’s approach to civil discourse and draw lessons for today’s caustic discourse.
3:00 p.m. Sean Bloomfield and Colton Witte “Retracing Canoeing with the Cree” Both 18, Witte and Bloomfield canoed from the Twin Cities to the Arctic Ocean in 2008. The 2,200-mile journey was inspired by legendary journalist Eric Sevareid’s book Canoeing with the Cree, which described his trek from Minnesota to Hudson Bay. Witte and Bloomfield made the trip in 49 days. Providing a fitting congratulations, Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman wrote of Witte and Bloomfield’s excellent canoe adventure: “Others have done it before. But none, to my knowledge, have done it faster, and few since Sevareid and his paddling partner Walter Port 64
[eric sevareid legacy symposium]
Sevareid, 1948, broadcasting for CBS.
Eric with his daughter, Tina, 1974.
have captured the public’s imagination more effectively.” Bloomfield and Witte will compare and contrast their epic adventure with Sevareid’s during this presentation and slideshow.
4:00 p.m. Clay Jenkinson “The Ordeal of William Shirer” Featuring clips from the upcoming Dakota Institute documentary film on Eric Sevareid William L. Shirer (1904-93) was recruited by Edward R. Murrow before Sevareid, and he, not Murrow, served as the anchor of the first news roundup on March 13, 1938. Shirer, like Sevareid, was a serious intellectual who regarded himself as a writer at least as much as a broadcaster. Unlike Sevareid, Shirer could not settle into a sustainable role as a Sunday news magazine host on CBS. He was the author of three remarkable books: The Berlin Diaries, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and one of the twentieth-century’s greatest autobiographies, the three-volume Twentieth Century Journey. The contrast of the Murrow Boys’ “other intellectual” creates a historical context for the life and achievement of Eric Sevareid. The Dakota Institute is working on a documentary film about the life and achievement of Eric Sevareid. The film will be released in 2012 on the occasion of Sevareid’s centennial. A short series of clips of the interviews that have already occurred will be shown.
5:00 - 5:15 p.m. Synthesis Keynote Address at Belle Mehus Auditorium 7:00 p.m. A conversation with Dan Rather and Nick Clooney “Knowing Eric” Internationally renowned journalist Dan Rather was one of Eric Sevareid’s favorite protégés. Rather will share his memories of Eric and discuss the enduring values Sevareid instilled in him during an informal conversation with close friend Emmy-winning commentator Nick Clooney.
Sunday, October 3, 2010 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Field Trip to Eric Sevareid’s hometown of Velva, ND (Buses leave from Bismarck State College) 65
North Dakota Humanities Council 418 E. Broadway, Suite 8 Bismarck, ND 58501 800-338-6543 email@example.com
We have ways of making you think. Board of Directors CHAIR Tami Carmichael, Grand Forks VICE CHAIR Virginia Dambach, Fargo Najla Amundson, Fargo Barbara Andrist, Crosby Paige Baker, Mandaree Jay Basquiat, Mandan Eric Furuseth, Minot Kara Geiger, Mandan Eliot Glassheim, Grand Forks Kate Haugen, Fargo Joseph Jastrzembski, Minot Carole L. Kline, Fargo Janelle Masters, Mandan Christopher Rausch, Bismarck Susan Wefald, Bismarck STAFF Brenna Daugherty, Executive Director Kenneth Glass, Associate Director Sarah Smith Warren, Program Officer The North Dakota Humanities Council is a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“You can’t know who you are, as a nation or a people, unless you know where you’ve been.” — Eric Sevareid 66
On Second Thought is a publication of the North Dakota Humanities Council. This issue celebrates the life of national news reporter and nati...