Thursday, July 16, 2015

Frank Crane, From the Pulpit to the Press

A couple years ago on a Tuesday afternoon I drove to First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. There I met Diane and Donna, the church's two archivists. They work on a volunteer basis, coming in once a week to organize and preserve pieces of the church's past.

When I arrived Diane and Donna led me down concrete stairs to the church basement, into a small storage room that served as the church's archive. They knew that I was interested in 1890s Omaha, and they mentioned that they had the perfect source for me: a weekly church newsletter that was distributed for most of the 1890s. After scanning the archive shelves, Donna pulled down two dusty old volumes titled "The Guidon."

I did not expect to find much excitement in a weekly church newsletter. Event announcements, membership lists, sermon summaries: in and of themselves these items did not pique my interest. But I knew that studying the routine activities of Omaha's leading 1890s Protestant church would be valuable. I was also interested in finding themes related to the social gospel. As I flipped through the two bound volumes and took pictures of the pages, I looked for signal words like "Washington Gladden" and "fatherhood of God."

To my surprise The Guidon's contents frequently exhibited a flair for the creative (or at least the unexpected). Instead of mindlessly snapping pictures for future use, I found myself pausing and reading, constantly drawn into the personality exhibited in the text. To take but one example: in order to convince church members to accept a new system of church finances, the editor wrote a parody of the wildly popular 1894 free-silver tract Coin's Financial School. In the original, a man named Professor Coin taught bankers and businessmen the benefits of bimetallism. In the parody, a man named Gould Coin taught First Methodist board members the benefits of a monthly subscription-based church giving system.

Intrigued, I resolved to find out more about Frank Crane, the editor of The Guidon and the pastor of First Methodist from 1892 until 1896. I began my search, as most do these days, with google. And very quickly, thanks to the plethora of digitized newspaper and magazines from the pre-1922 years, I discovered that the Frank Crane who edited The Guidon in such an interesting way was the same "Dr. Frank Crane" who became perhaps the most widely read syndicated newspaper columnist in the early twentieth century and an icon of middlebrow American consumer culture.

From LIFE magazine in 1920.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summer Book List: Henry George (and George Norris) and the Crisis of Inequality

Note: this is the second book in my "Summer Book List" series. In the first installment I discussed Murry Nelson's The National Basketball League: A History.

May 2, 1930 was an active day in the U.S. Senate. With unemployment already well past three million people, the economic downturn that would become known as the Great Depression occupied the minds of many senators.

On that particular day, though, the main issue at hand was the confirmation of President Hoover's nomination for the Supreme Court, John J. Parker. A longtime resident of North Carolina, Parker's nomination was part of Hoover's plan to attract southern Democrats into the Republican fold. But the nomination of Parker, a lily-white Republican with a history of racist statements and actions, sparked opposition from the NAACP. Labor leaders were not happy with Parker, either, criticizing his use of injunctions against strikes and his support for yellow dog contracts.

What authority could be invoked in these debates and discussions over a growing economic crisis and a controversial Supreme Court justice? For Senators Gerald Nye and George Norris, that authority came in the voice of a nineteenth-century reformer named Henry George. Early in the day's proceedings, Nye inserted into the Congressional Record George's late-nineteenth-century words on inequality, condensed into more palpable form by George's son-in-law Will Atkinson:

Later in the day, during a two-hour speech explaining why he opposed Parker's nomination, Senator Norris turned to George as well, quoting "one of the most beautiful things I have ever read on the preciousness of human liberty." The lengthy quotation from George's Progress and Poverty spanned three paragraphs, ending with George's plea: "In our time, as in times before, creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy liberty....Unless its foundations be laid in justice, the social structure cannot stand." For Norris, Judge Parker's history of judicial activism against labor meant that he would only exacerbate the problem of economic equality made conspicuous in the wake of the 1929 Crash. Ultimately, Norris's view (alongside the NAACP and others), won the day. Parker's nomination failed by one vote.

It should be no surprise that Henry George -- one of the earliest and most prominent voices pointing out the danger of inequality in Gilded Age America -- was invoked in 1930, a moment when the problem of economic inequality seemed obvious. So, too, it is only fitting that in 2015, a time when the problem of economic inequality once again holds the nation's attention, we should have a new biography of Henry George.