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In which the author goes by plane, bicycle, train, and rental car from Europe and New York to the American South and Midwest. This is Part IV – from Bentonville, AK, the people’s republic of Walmart, to Kansas City, MO, by way of Commerce, OK (Mickey Mantle), Osawatomie, KS (John Brown), and Topeka, KS (Brown v. the Board of Education). Click here for Part I, Part II, and Part III.
I didn’t plan on going to the Walmart Museum. Nor did I want to go inside when I got to Bentonville, the town that Sam built. Still, when I stood in front of the first Walmart store, which now has a soda fountain and museum, I was drawn inside.
Blame it on the greeters near the front door. Or the cheap ice cream. Or the smarmy video of President George Herbert Walker Bush fawning over Mr. Sam. Anyway, I went in, much the way in Europe I sometimes feel compelled to walk around cathedrals that are marketing eternity at good prices.
Everyone knowns the Walmart story, how Sam started after the war (he guarded POWs, which must have been great training for customer service) with five-and-dime stores (stuff you don’t need at prices you can afford).
By 1962, the chain became Wal-Mart, and then Walmart, which today “employs” (defined to mean anyone getting something an hour, which can then be paired with food stamps…) 2.1 million workers in or around 11,695 stores worldwide, throwing off sales annually of almost $500 billion.
The museum has Sam Walton’s 10 Rules for Building a Business. Here’s number eleven: “Sure, we’ll take your money… It’s just crap anyway.”
* * *
No sooner was I inside the Walmart Visitors Center than I wanted to leave. I didn’t need to inspect the cabinets that explain how Walmart pays munificent salaries to its beloved employees.
In the museum most workers are shown gathered around Sam, as if he were the coach of a successful basketball team. Think of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, rallying the team to stack better shelves with cheap Asian imports.
The genius of Walmart is that you want to browse. I stuck around to have a look at Sam’s office, vintage 1968, which is preserved under glass (much the way the Red Square mausoleum has managed to hang on to shards of Lenin).
On the office walls (made with cheap Walmart paneling—the kind you put in your man cave), there is a picture of Sam with his hunting dogs. Piled on the floor are newspapers and magazines he has yet to read. There is a name plate on the desk that reads “Sam W. Walton,” just in case you are a Bible salesman and by chance went into the wrong office.
I also watched a video of Pappy Bush presenting Sam with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. An adoring crowd is on hand—it’s in the middle of the 1992 election campaign and Walmart is the largest employer in some 25 states—and Bush is lionizing Patron Saint Walton. He says:
The story of Sam Walton is an illustration of the American dream. His success is our success, America’s success. And when Sam’s grandchildren read about what makes America great, they’ll read about people who have grand ideas and great dreams, resourceful people who make imagination come alive with accomplishment.
Before this trip—I am driving from North Carolina to Arkansas—I didn’t think too much about Walmart. I had only been inside two or three times. Once on vacation in Maine, to replace a lost bathing suit, I came away with trunks that were day-glow orange, as if I were planning to swim in the woods during hunting season.
On this trip I saw Walmart in the context of small-town America, most of which might well be in receivership. I have driven along countless main streets that are Walmart ghost towns, once vibrant hamlets that have been reduced to adult superstores and thrift shops.
The numbers read like this: 96 percent of all Americans live within twenty miles of a Walmart; 80 percent of Walmart suppliers are based (in some fashion) in China; 85 percent of goods sold in Walmart come from outside the United States; and the average American family now spends more than $4000 a year at Walmart. For that its market capitalization is $241 billion.
Hundreds of thousands of American jobs have been moved overseas. What local manufacturer can compete with China on pricing, especially with its currency, the renminbi, pegged to the political expedience of the Waltons?
* * *
Bentonville has some of the most overpriced shops in middle America (perhaps the antique pastimes of moonlighting Walmart execs). I stopped into one café, thinking I would buy a sandwich to eat in the car, but left without spending $14 for prosciutto and tapenade, served on a thick bed of arugula.
Leaving Bentonville—the surrounding architecture is Prairie Warehouse—I passed the Walmart corporate offices, which, from the outside, are a few more mall stores. But don’t let appearances fool you: according to one source, “the CEO of Wal-Mart makes more in a single hour than a full-time Wal-Mart associate makes in an entire year.”
In the late afternoon I went to nearby Pea Ridge, a Civil War battlefield that is north of Rogers, Arkansas. The temperature was well into the nineties, so before setting off on my bicycle, I drank water from a fountain and carb loaded on Oreos from a vending machine.
Pea Ridge is billed as “the battle that saved Missouri for the Union.” It was fought in northwest Arkansas in March 1862, and involved a Confederate general, Earl Van Dorn, trying to encircle the Union forces of Gen. Samuel R. Curtis (the most competent Union general you have never heard of).
Curtis’s forces were expecting Van Dorn’s men to attack from the south, and they were deployed along Leetown Road, now part of a park service trail that loops the battlefield (it’s a perfect bike ride, which took me about ninety minutes).
Instead, channeling Hannibal at the battle of Cannae (pay attention the next time you are in a Latin class), Van Dorn sent his forces on a long march around the Union lines and then ordered an immediate attack (even though his men were hungry, tired, and had little in the way of supplies).
The Confederates attacked a long blue line deployed across what are now wheat fields (as if in a Napoleonic painting), and Curtis’s stacked artillery blew apart those particular Southern dreams. In the war’s early years, his win was among the most decisive, and it kept the Confederates from penetrating into Missouri.
Despite the heat, I rode the contours of the battlefield, stopping at numbered points, with such names as “General Curtis’ Headquarters Site” and “Elkhorn Tavern.”
Often I bumped into the same businessman. He had spent the day pitching his wares to Walmart, but now in a rental car, before his flight home, he was studying the contours of the Pea Ridge battlefield—in particular, its boulder line at East Overlook—with an earnestness that made me think better of some Walmart suppliers.
In 1862, after the failures of George McClellan, had Abraham Lincoln appointed Curtis to command the Army of the Potomac, the Union might have been spared the disasters of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Instead, by 1864, Curtis was mustered from the Union army, for, of all things, his abolitionist views (they conflicted with the opinions of the Missouri governor).
I do wonder if Pea Ridge might also have broken Curtis’ fighting spirit. Of it he wrote in the aftermath: “The scene is silent and sad. The vulture and the wolf now have the dominion and the dead friends and foes sleep in the same lonely graves.”
* * *
It was still hot when I finished my ride and loaded the bicycle into the trunk of the rental car. By then the visitors’ center was closed, and I had the battlefield to myself. Before leaving, I went back to a clearing in the woods that had several plaques about the Trail of Tears, which cuts through a portion of what later became the national park.
Since Tennessee I had been shadowing the trail, which in several branches led from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida to Oklahoma. The tears were those of displaced Native Americans, sent west in the 1830s on Jacksonian death marches.
I read the following text posted near one of the trails:
After passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the United States government forced tens of thousands of American Indians to leave their ancestral lands in the southeast for new homes in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). They traveled over established land and water routes, all of which led through Arkansas. Rather than risk disease and other hazards of summer travel, many groups left in the fall and faced, instead, treacherous winter weather. Thousands died during the ordeal—remembered today as the Trail of Tears.
The signpost showed arrows on a map leading toward eastern Oklahoma, around Tahlequah, my next destination in the rental car. I hoped to camp that night at Cherokee Landing State Park on Tenkiller Lake.
Between Pea Ridge and Tahlequah, I would take the same back roads that had earlier been footpaths on the Trail of Tears, and perhaps understand better the consequences of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal policies toward Native Americans.
* * *
On paper—at least that of my Michelin map—the idea to follow the Trail of Tears seemed a good one. Before leaving New York City on this trip, I had gone to the National Museum of the American Indian and, at the Strand Bookshop, I had bought several Native American histories. But I had found many passages to be abstractions and knew that I would only understand what happened when I followed the Indian flight west.
In the car, however, I lost the trail just outside Rogers, Arkansas, where I fell into a snare of Walmart-related traffic. It was 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and the highways were jammed until I was west of Bentonville and its intersections of consumer dreams.
Only when I crossed into Oklahoma did the undulating roads become rural. It was close to 8 p.m. when I found myself in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee nation. It had taken me almost three hours to travel less than 100 miles in rural Arkansas.
Tahlequah has a historic downtown (okay, brick buildings and angled parking). Instead of stopping for dinner, I headed for the Cherokee Heritage Center, just outside town, even though I was sure it would be closed. (As a traveler I suffer from the delusion that things will open when I show up.)
The center is set back from the road, and consists of assorted houses, tents, and exhibition centers that are spread around a well-kept woodland. It is geared toward school groups, who during the day make the rounds of small houses that show off Cherokee crafts or explain the suffering on the Trail of Tears. Of course there is a large gift shop.
Near the parking lot I read the markers that explain the removal of the Cherokee nation to Tahlequah. Only later, sorting through some of my books, did I figure out that many other Indian nations had found also themselves on the trail, including the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.
* * *
The 1832 Indian Removal Act was Jackson’s mechanism to move many Indian nations to the west. In theory, they were to have been compensated for their losses. In practice, however, it was a sham treaty, negotiated not with Indian chiefs, but with dubious middle men who were acting more for the U.S. government than those being removed.
Some of the motivation for the Removal Act was the 1829 discovery of gold in Georgia, and all through the Southeast, Americans of European descent had coveted prized Native American lands—to the point that some who favored the removal policies did so because they believed it was one way to protect the Indians from settler hunting parties.
When various tribes sued to block the removal and for restitution for their confiscated lands, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Native Americans standing in court. It was the dress rehearsal for the Dred Scott decision, which deemed slaves to be “property.”
When in 1832, the Court finally did rule in favor of the Cherokee, judging that the state of Georgia had no jurisdiction over federal Native American nations, the administration of President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and dispatched the death marches.
It has been reported, including in my eighth grade American history class, that Jackson said of the chief justice’s opinion: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” It made a good sound bite, one that my teacher, Mr. Lewis Gordon, relished, but was probably apocryphal.
As for the numbers involved in the removal, I never got a clear answer—at least while walking at sunset around Tahlequah.
Some 16,000 Cherokee were thought to have walked from North Carolina to Oklahoma, and of those about 4,000 perished (similar to the casualties of the Normandy Landing in World War II). All together, about 50,000 Indians from numerous other tribes were herded up and pointed west.
Among those who witnessed the removal in person was the French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, who devotes almost a chapter in his Travels (On Democracy in America) to the genocide in the making. He writes:
At the end of the year 1831, while I was on the left bank of the Mississippi, at a place named by Europeans Memphis, there arrived a numerous band of Choctaws (or Chactas, as they are called by the French in Louisiana). These savages had left their country and were endeavoring to gain the right bank of the Mississippi, where they hoped to find an asylum that had been promised them by the American government. It was then the middle of winter, and the cold was unusually severe; the snow had frozen hard upon the ground, and the river was drifting huge masses of ice. The Indians had their families with them, and they brought in their train the wounded and the sick, with children newly born and old men upon the verge of death. They possessed neither tents nor wagons, but only their arms and some provisions. I saw them embark to pass the mighty river, and never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance. No cry, no sob, was heard among the assembled crowd; all were silent. Their calamities were of ancient date, and they knew them to be irremediable.
* * *
At sunset the park on the banks of the Illinois River (now Tenkiller Lake) had forlorn qualities, with only a few RVs parked near the shore—part of yet another wandering tribe.
Instead I kept driving toward Claremore, Oklahoma, where the next day I wanted to visit the Will Rogers Museum (He said: “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat…” Will was one-quarter Native American.)
At dusk, Eastern Oklahoma assumed sinister qualities. The sky began to take on a menacing appearance, and the drilling rigs in the fields on either side of the highway looked like androids (the robots, not the smart phones) forming up for an attack.
By the time I drove through Tulsa and approached Claremore, a storm of biblical proportions was sweeping the Great Plains. Winds, thunder, lightning, and buckets of rain converged on the car, which I drove along Interstate 44 as if in a funeral procession (it would have been my own, had I stayed in the tent).
Without a reservation, I was looking for a motel, but I felt like one of Noah’s animals trying to find space in the ark.
Two roadside motels were full, but a third, flying the La Quinta flag of convenience, had a room, which I took, even though it meant unloading the car in the maelstrom.
The motel had television in the lobby, and while signing in, I watched reports of the storm winds that were reaching 65 m.p.h., as the squall line was pushing down from Wichita toward Tahlequah.
* * *
Although Will Rogers—vaudeville actor, silver-screen cowboy, columnist, and Hollywood star—was born and grew up in nearby Oologah, Oklahoma, the memorial museum in his honor is located in Claremore, to which Will and his wife, Betty Blake Rogers, had hoped to retire.
The museum is sprawling affair, with the look of a renovated Anglican cathedral. It is set on a hill that overlooks Claremore (now an interstate exit more than a small town). Rogers and his wife are buried in the back yard.
The size of the memorial speaks to Will’s fame, and untimely death, in 1935 rather than to his current standing, which is as a vaudeville actor who made the transition to movies and politics. (He liked to say: “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”)
I ended up at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum after reading Richard D. White, Jr.’s Will Rogers: A Political Life, which deals more with his newspaper column and presidential friendships than his abilities with a cowboy’s lariat.
As does Mark Twain, Rogers remains a godfather of American political humor, without whom we might not have Saturday Night Live or the Onion (Headline: “Only Adult Left In Trump Administration Named ‘Mad Dog’”).
In his public appearances, radio shows, and newspaper columns—between about 1920 and his death in 1935—Rogers became a beloved voice of wit and reason, someone adept at one-liners that were remembered and repeated around the country, often prefaced by: “Did you hear what Will said?”
At the 1932 Democratic convention, Heywood Broun, a newspaper columnist, wrote: “It seems a little ironical that the same Convention which thinks Will Rogers is a clown accepts Huey Long as a statesman.”
Many of Will’s sayings are on display around the museum. Here are a few of his witticisms, all of which work in the age of Trump, as they would have in the company of Benjamin Franklin. He said:
—“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
—“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”
—“No party is as bad as its state and national leaders.”
—“Papers say: ‘Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.’ I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.”
—“The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.”
—“Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and ten million can’t buy enough to eat.”
—“We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poor house in an automobile.”
—“We don’t know what we want, but we’re ready to bite somebody to get it.”
—“But with Congress—every time they make a joke it’s a law. And every time they make a law it’s a joke.”
—“On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.”
—“There are men running governments who shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches.”
—“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
—“What would we say if the Chinese sent a gunboat with their marines up the Mississippi River claiming they were protecting their laundries in Memphis?”
—“Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.”
—“The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking spaces.”
—“I read an Irish newspaper the other day and it says liquor is eighteen cents a quart. Can you imagine a nation wanting more freedom than that?”
—“The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it in your back pocket.”
* * *
Walking around the spacious memorial, it is easy to like Rogers, who—at least in the cabinets—is as warm and loving as he is in his familiar quotations.
He raised his family in a California mansion, and the museum has pictures of his four children happily riding around in the open family car or eating dinner outside on the terrace.
At the same time Rogers was a peripatetic traveler, who carried with him a battered typewriter (it’s on display) and who filed columns from around the United States and the world (from Manchuria to Latin America).
He traveled as a Hollywood celebrity and a newspaperman, and used the materials from his stops for his columns and movies, blurring the lines between show business and journalism. (Trump would dismiss him as “fake news,” and he would dismiss Donald by saying: “He talks to Americans as if everyone is behind on the rent.”)
In the museum, I watched some outtakes from So This is London (1930), in which Rogers mixes comically with the English aristocracy, who see him, well, as an Oklahoma ranch hand.
In the film, the aristocrat is named Lord Percy Worthing, and Rogers has fallen in love with his daughter, played by Maureen O’Sullivan. When I sat down, I thought I might be watching an awkward silent movie. But when I left the small screening room, I felt I had been in the company of someone who could have been equally at home with Henry James (The Ambassadors), Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) or Chevy Chase (European Vacation). He had the gifts of satire and humility.
Rogers died in Alaska, in 1935, at age 55. He went there with his friend, the pilot Wiley Post, who wanted to go north to test a new airplane and to explore how air mail could be carried across the Bering Strait to Russia. Rogers, himself, loved to fly, and his friendship with Charles Lindbergh did as much for air travel as did the Spirit of St. Louis.
In Barrow (on the Alaskan north coast), bad weather forced them to land the seaplane on a small lake. When they tried to resume their journey, the plane crashed on take-off, killing both men.
America went into national mourning. It was called the largest public funeral since the death of Abraham Lincoln, and explains why the Claremore memorial museum is the size of a cathedral, even for the agnostic Rogers, who said: “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
* * *
From Claremore, I detoured briefly toward Oologah, where Rogers grew up with his Cherokee sensibility. His family had emigrated west in 1832 along the Trail of Tears (although before Jackson’s removal act), and his father, who was half-Cherokee, was active in Indian affairs. Then I backtracked to Route 66 and headed north to Commerce, Oklahoma, where Mickey Mantle grew up.
Except in themed diners, I had never been on Route 66, which in places is a four-lane divided highway with 70 m.p.h. as the speed limit. Elsewhere, Route 66 is the main street of prairie towns, lined with motels and supermarkets, many of which advertise their affinity with America’s historic highway.
I pulled off Route 66 in Chelsea, Oklahoma, as a sign indicated that it was the hometown of New York Yankee Ralph Terry (the pitcher who coughed up the losing home run to the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski in the 1960 World Series, after which I cried).
Chelsea is a perfect example of an American town that has been Walmarted. The main street is deserted. I saw a bank, a taxidermist, a few bars, and a convenience store. The rest of the town had the vacant look of Dry Gulch, and then on a bad day (such as when Ralph Terry threw that hanging curve).
* * *
An hour later I arrived in Commerce, Oklahoma, where in front of the high school sports stadium there is a large statue of Mickey Mantle, in full swing, as if he is trying to hit the cover off the ball.
The Mick lived in Commerce until he graduated from high school, when the Yankees signed him a “team-friendly” contract that only gave him a $1500 signing bonus. (He could have held out for $50,000, but neither the Mick nor his father were numbers guys.)
The Mantle house is on Quincy Street, in the residential section of Commerce. It makes sense that Mantle, the quintessential American teenager who never quite grew up, lived on a side street off Route 66.
I had no trouble finding the simple wooden frame house, which has a plaque next to the front door. It reads:
When Mickey was 3 years old his family moved to this location. At age 5 or 6 his father started teaching him how to hit; they used the tin barn as their backstop. Mutt, his father, would pitch righty and Mickey’s grandfather would pitch lefty while teaching him the fine art of switch-hitting. Everyday when his father returned home from the mines he and Mickey would start batting practice that lasted until dark.
The most famous tin barn in America remains in the yard. Less in evidence, however, is the extent to which the Mick never escaped from the shadow that his father cast from the pitcher’s mound beside the Commerce house.
Over a lifetime of Mantle worshipping (he retired in 1969 when I was 14), I have read many of his biographies, included Jane Leavy’s celebrated but otherwise (to me anyway) unreadable account of his life (“wine and beer don’t count…”).
I disliked the book as I found it was more about the self-absorbed Leavy than it was about the Mick. After all, Jane never began her days with his “breakfast of champions,” a morning shot of brandy mixed with Kahlúa and cream.
Most biographies tell the same story of a happy-go-lucky Achilles coming of age on the Oklahoma prairie, hitting baseballs into the sunset until he takes Yankee Stadium by storm during the 1950s and 60s, during which, in epic style, he wins many World Series and falls into many bottles.
Nearly every biography includes the famous Mantle wisecrack, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” uttered not long before he died of liver cancer.
It was the Mick’s fear of an early death (which claimed his father, many uncles, and later some of his children), that drove him both toward baseball immortality and neighborhood saloons.
* * *
Commerce, Oklahoma has a love-hate relationship with the Mantle family. It did buy the house on Quincy Street and preserve the tin barn, and Route 66 through town is also called Mickey Mantle Boulevard (although it is a canyon of despair). But the forlorn bungalow is closed to visitors, as if to make the point that Mantle could have included Commerce more than he did in his success story.
To anyone road-tripping on Route 66, Tony Castro’s Mickey Mantle: America’s Prodigal Son is the best Mantle biography, as much of it is set on the front lawn in Commerce, where the father builds his son’s perfect home-run swing but also fills his head with expectations that later could only be fulfilled through alcoholism and extra-marital affairs.
The father, Mutt Mantle, worked in the zinc mines that were on the edge of town, inhaling daily the carcinogenic particles that would kill him at age 40, during the Mick’s second year with the Yankees.
In his hands, the gregarious, out-going cheerful Mickey (named for a Hall of Fame catcher, Mickey Cochrane) became a lab experiment for greatness—a Frankenstein of the long ball—and in some ways the template that later drove Earl Woods to teach Tiger how to play golf when he was three years old. Neither father taught their sons how to grow up or become a man.
Whatever Mickey achieved in baseball, he knew it would never have been enough for his father, who wanted him to be not just a good player, but the greatest of all time.
As Mickey piled up MVP, Triple Crown, and World Series trophies, the only emotion he could ever feel was despair. As Albert Camus writes in The Stranger: “I wasn’t even able to tell myself that it was hard to think those things.”
* * *
Other than at Yankee Stadium during the 1960s (I went often, and he was always in the lineup), I only saw the Mick twice in person—both times after he had retired from baseball and was living on his autograph.
In 1978, I went with a group of friends to the Stork Club on Central Park South in New York City. Even then it was living on its 1950s reputation, but I am sure we went thinking we might bump into the Mick or Whitey Ford, which is exactly what happened.
Late in the evening, one of the women in our party came back to the table and announced breathlessly: “Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin are leaving the club.”
My friend Winthrop and I raced to the sidewalk where both Mickey and Billy were trying to run on the catcher, so to speak.
Each was in the company of a young woman, what Babe Ruth had in mind when he would say to his Yankee teammates: “I am going to see a party.” And both men looked as though they had moved on from the uncounting beer and wine.
The club doorman was chasing after them with their bill, which the Mick was trying to pay, first by placing his cocktail glass on the roof of the taxi. Billy was in a tender embrace with his party. (His fourth wife, Jill, would later say of Martin: “I don’t care where he gets his appetite, I know where he comes for dinner.”)
I date the end of my childhood—much of which was built around hero worship of the New York Yankees—from that night at the Stork Club.
By stopping in Commerce, I am sure I was searching for the more innocent associations of the summer game, when Mickey was The Natural. (Bernard Malamud wrote in his baseball novel: “We have two lives; the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”)
Looking at the tin barn—with its white-whale obsessions, at least for Mutt Mantle—I could not help but think about how much time the Mick must have spent chasing the ghosts of his childhood.
* * *
From Commerce, I headed toward John Brown’s Kansas, the series of towns around Lawrence—Osawatomie, Pottawatomie Creek, Palmyra, Franklin, and Lecompton—that were the actual “cradle of the Civil War” (as opposed to Paul Simon’s Memphis).
On the outskirts of Commerce, I saw the remnants of the old mines—there were great slag heaps of effluent. From the forlorn moonscape, I could better understand why Mutt Mantle wanted the Mick on the Grand Concourse.
Route 66 vanished, and I picked up state highway 69 through Columbus, Scammon, Girard, and Farlington until it merged with routes 7 and 39, which lead into historic Fort Scott.
I needed to stop somewhere for lunch, and I decided that the Fort Scott National Historic Site might work well for a picnic. From there, I could stay on route 7 north and get to the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie before it closed at 5 p.m.
Although the sun was blistering as I walked around the historic army encampment (it’s a stockage and dates to the settling of the West), I loved Fort Scott, which evokes the peacetime army of the 1840s—with genteel officers’ quarters, stables for the dragoons, a guard house, and the post headquarters.
After it was built, Fort Scott occupied a place in the Maginot-like Line against the Indians (forts were aligned from Minnesota to Louisiana). Later it played a staging role in the 1846-48 Mexican War, during the Kansas rebellion of the 1850s, and in the Civil War (when it blocked Confederates from Missouri from attacking free Kansas).
During the Indians Wars in the late nineteenth century the army stockades in the West became the strategic hamlets of Manifest Destiny. George Custer commanded Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the Missouri River.
Even though Fort Scott is hundreds of miles from the Little Bighorn, to walk around its buildings is to sense the presence of officers such Custer, General Philip Sheridan, or even William T. Sherman, for whom the Indian wars were an extension of the Civil War, one that needed to be fought ruthlessly until there was unconditional surrender. But at Little Bighorn it was the Lakota and Cheyenne who would give no quarter.
* * *
Before leaving on this trip, I had read T. J. Stiles’ new biography, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, much of which takes place in forts (similar to Scott) between the Mississippi and the Little Bighorn. Stiles calls Custer “the exaggerated American” whose…. “contradictions make him morally perplexing at best, abhorrent at worst.”
Stiles writes: “A man out of time with his times makes for instability. One moment Custer would show skill, judgment, loyalty, selflessness, courage, and love; the next he would veer into self-indulgence, impulsivity, sarcasm, self-justification, lies, even betrayal.”
Custer earned his military reputation in the Civil War as a staff officer for Gen. George McClellan (and he fought well at Antietam and Gettysburg), but he found fame in the Shenandoah Valley as a cavalry officer. Politically, he was a Democrat, and thus often out of favor with Republicans Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman.
Above all Custer was a fighter. Stiles writes: “War gave Custer his greatest pleasure. It gave him purpose, praise, and the adoration of his men…. His success taught him many lessons about himself and the world. And he would spend the rest of his life learning that they were all wrong.” Elsewhere, he writes: “His illusions remained intact—more than intact, reinforced.”
After the war in the West, according to Stiles, Custer attempted to keep alive the flames of fighting that he had brought him glory during the Civil War. Although as Stiles writes, “Custer’s mask of command grew hard and brittle.” It led to atrocities and a court martial.
Part of his problem was a fear of the future. (Stiles: “He saw America standing at a doorway between past and future, and he wanted to close that door.”) What brought him down, however, as an officer, was his cruelty toward his men, who often must have wondered if they themselves, and not Native America, were the enemy on the frontier.
“Custer’s troopers,” Stiles writes, “faced forced marches, cholera, scurvy, arrest for buying food to prevent scurvy, head shaving, and ferocious discipline that extended even to swearing.” Indian attacks must have come as a relief.
When Custer arrived on the banks of the Little Bighorn in 1876, he did so as an outstanding combat officer—someone who had fought many times at close quarters in the Civil War—but also as someone out of touch with the America behind him (Grant loathed him) and the men under his command. He was fighting for an America than no longer existed.
At Little Bighorn arrogance and vanity were not sufficient against a superior Indian force. I am sure he was physically brave, but the forces that drove him were delusional.
In a modern sense, the scary thing about Custer is that much of his inflated personality reminds me of similar, erratic qualities found in another arrogant Union officer, Donald J. Trump.
* * *
The rough cottage that was once home to abolitionist John Brown sits in a park in the center of Osawatomie, a river town about an hour southwest of Kansas City. Brown lived a life of Christian austerity, at least on the plains.
Back east, when promoting his get-rich-quick ventures, he could be more refined, which explains his acceptance in the drawing rooms of wealthy abolitionists, who would fund his causes.
Because of Brown and his doomed attack on Harper’s Ferry, war came to the United States over the slave question, and the reason I went to Kansas was to better understand how his skirmishes on the frontier turned into a civil war.
I poked around the cottage, read various explanations about Brown’s time in Kansas, and interviewed the site administrator, Grady Atwater, who made the point that Brown followed his sons to Kansas, bringing them weapons to fight in the conflict there over slavery.
We associate John Brown both with the Stephen Vincent Benét poem, in which his “body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” and the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, that Brown hoped would spark a slave rebellion in the South.
Instead, it lead only to his hanging, and a war that devoured 600,000 American lives (including my mother’s great uncle, at Antietam).
Before Brown led the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry (Col. Robert E. Lee commanded the U.S. federal troops that suppressed the rising), he had spent several years living in Kansas, then a territory that after 1854 was struggling with the question whether it should allow slavery within its borders.
Numerous small battles and skirmishes were fought in the territory—it became known as Bleeding Kansas—and John Brown himself had a hand in several encounters, not to mention massacres.
Brown was a devoted abolitionist who also believed in the violence of the old testament as the only way to rid the country of slavery. (He liked to say: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.”)
Brown was dogmatic, intolerant, fanatic, and doctrinaire. Although he wrote little on the slavery question and never stood for political office, he said often: “These men are all talk; What is needed is action — action!”
Brown was willing to fight and kill to eliminate slavery, something few in the North, including Abraham Lincoln, could contemplate in the 1850s. In his 1860 Cooper Union speech, Lincoln said of Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry:
John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed. That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.
Lincoln is right in describing Brown as a prairie assassin, more an anarchist than the head of a political movement. But Brown’s actions convinced many in the United States (both in the North and South) that the question would only be resolved through war.
* * *
John Brown was born in Torrington, Connecticut, and spent most of his adult life, as a farmer and a schemer, between Ohio and upstate New York. At the end of his life he looked like a biblical prophet, with a long white beard and possessed eyes. His language was that of scorn for anyone who could defend slavery or failed to share his strict moral code.
Brown reached the widest audience at his Harper’s Ferry trial, which lasted for several days and ended with his hanging. In his own defense he said:
I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
While I was in Osawatomie and on my drive north to Lawrence and Lecompton, I saw a number of hallowed grounds associated with John Brown’s battles.
I saw where one of his sons was killed (in the battle of Osawatomie) and where, on the Pottawatomie Creek, Brown and his accomplices killed five men—in revenge for an attack on “free staters” that had taken place in Lawrence, Kansas.
The John Brown who fought on the Kansas frontier was either an idealistic guerrilla or an outlaw, depending on your perspective. He murdered men in cold blood and stole horses—sometimes for the abolitionist cause, sometimes for the glory of self-interest.
The hardest part about understanding John Brown is deciding whether he was a patriot or a terrorist (to use modern language) who dressed up his crimes in biblical allegories. Wendell Philips, a northern abolitionist, said of him: “He sails with letters of marque from God.”
* * *
Only when I got home and read several Brown biographies, however, did I get a fuller appreciation for Brown’s place in American history. In particular, I tracked down a Brown biography that the celebrated American novelist, Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), wrote when he was a twenty-four-year-old.
Even now I like the idea that some of Warren’s later insight into Huey Long (Willie Stark in the novel) came from his graduate school reading about John Brown. Who was he describing when he wrote: “The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind.”
In historical circles, the rap against Warren’s biography is that he considered Brown as might a Southerner, and focused too much on the abolitionist’s biblical furies, and less on his vision for a just society.
Personally, because I find Brown to be a bigot for a just cause, I like what Warren writes about Old Osawatomie Brown, including this summary, describing how he guided his men on the Kansas frontier:
He simply gave them of the insane root which he himself had eaten years before; he taught them the meaning of ambition and the meaning of imagination. They were very young, very impressionable, very ignorant men, and, after all, they didn’t like slavery. John Brown told them that God had created him to be the deliverer of the slaves, just as Moses was of the children of Israel; they did not much discuss the point.
Almost more to the point is what Lincoln wrote about Brown after his hanging. He said: “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”
* * *
I spent that evening in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the University of Kansas, a sprawling campus on a hill that has aspects of southern charm and lecture halls the size of its basketball arena.
I had hoped to camp on the banks of Clinton Lake, just outside Lawrence, but no sooner had I pitched my tent and put together my cot than I read on my phone of tornadoes that could sweep through the night with some of John Brown’s vengeance. I retreated to a motel off the highway, and pitched myself into a bed the size of a tennis court.
I was planning to start the next day in Lecompton, briefly the capital of Kansas in the 1850s, when the territory had two legislatures, each of which drafted constitutions (one allowing slavery, the other outlawing it).
The problem with American travel, at least the car version, is that the details of the road interfere with the best-laid plans, and first thing the next morning I went in search of a power car wash, as my rental car had acquired speckles of yellow paint from driving over a newly painted road. (I went after the problem with some of John Brown’s obsession.)
Since I only found a car wash in Topeka, the current capital of Kansas, I decided to start my day at the elementary school that memorializes Brown v. the Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school segregation.
The board of education sued was that of Topeka, Kansas, and it was Oliver L. Brown, a welder for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, who gave his name to the lawsuit. His daughter was being bused to a black school when a white school was closer to their home—the reason he lent his name to the suit brought by the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).
* * *
Monroe Elementary was one of four segregated, black schools in downtown Topeka. Now it is a national historic site. In many classrooms on the first floor (along with small desks and drinking fountains for seven-year-old kids), there are exhibits on the Brown case and video interviews with some of the plaintiffs. (Brown, in particular, is an engaging man, who, if I recall correctly, got the news of his Supreme Court victory while getting his hair cut in a Topeka barber shop.)
In the museum I learned that Brown wasn’t one case, but the combination of five lawsuits, all of which were petitioning the courts to end school segregation.
The Supreme Court heard all the cases as Brown v. the Board of Education. The other school districts sued were in Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
The NAACP supplied the legal teams and plotted the strategy. I read many panels in the museum about Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall, who were chief counsels for the NAACP during many of the court battles that began in the late 1940s.
Their argument was that “separate but equal” was inherently unjust, and that the African American schools, in each of the contested districts, had fewer resources than did the nearby white schools.
The irony in Topeka is that the black schools, such as Monroe Elementary, were almost as good as their white counterparts, which meant that the court case there turned on the issue of segregation.
In the lower court rulings of the many cases that became part of Brown, it was easy to demonstrate that black schools were inferior to white ones. In Briggs v. Elliot, a 1951 case on the schools in Clarendon County, South Carolina, the judge described the black-only schools as “tumbledown, dirty shacks.”
At trial Marshall’s fears were that “separate but equal” would be upheld while school districts would be ordered to insure that segregated facilities were up to the standards of white schools.
What gave the Brown case its greatness, however, wasn’t that it proved the deplorable state of segregated schools, but that it tied access to public eduction to the 14th Amendment, which mandates equal protection under the law for all citizens, regardless of color.
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote famously in his opinion on Brown that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Until then, the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson had tolerated segregation along the lines of “separate by equal,” which the Warren court decided was a sham.
* * *
From Monroe, I made a dash to Emporia, about sixty miles to the southwest. All during my travels, I had weighed whether or not to include a stop at the house of William Allen White, who in the early twentieth century was a respected, moderate Republican editor of the Emporia Gazette.
I only knew about White from my father, who would say of his journalism that “he was fair,” which I took to mean good at writing about both sides of any issue. I also knew that White had run for governor of Kansas in opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, saying:
Kansas… of all states should be free of this taint of bigotry and terror…. And the thought that Kansas should have a government beholden to this hooded gang of masked fanatics, ignorant and tyrannical in their ruthless oppression, is what calls me out of the pleasant ways of my life and into this distasteful, but necessary task.
The problem with a detour to Emporia is that it would leave me several hours from Kansas City, and I was tiring of the open road. To paraphrase Robert Frost: “I have been one acquainted with the interstate…”
Because the day was clear and sunny (so far there were no ominous thunder clouds on the prairie horizon), I decided to go for it. The drive would get me on to the Great Plains, and I could find out firsthand “What’s the matter with Kansas?” which is the title of an 1896 editorial that White wrote.
A homily to mid-western virtue, but written in language that would amuse H.L. Mencken, White writes about the recession still hurting Kansas and the prospect of a debased currency if William Jennings Bryan were elected president. He mocks the treatment of every-day citizens at the hands of the intrusive government, writing:
Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffings out of the creditors and tell debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money “per capita” was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate.
Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pay his debts, on an altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing.
* * *
All I knew about Emporia is that William Allen White’s house, called Red Rocks, is a museum, and that it is open on the weekends. What I didn’t expect is how much I would enjoy my visit.
I walked around with a volunteer on duty and a woman from the local garden club (she was on hand to sell flowers and raise money for their activities). The guide spoke about White’s daily journalism with the Gazette, his many books, his presidential friends (Teddy Roosevelt, William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and the like), and family life in the sprawling Victorian house.
The sadness in the household was the death of White’s daughter Mary, in a riding accident, when she was 16. In her picture on a bedroom wall, she looks like Anne Frank.
What most appealed to me about the White house was the informality of the tour. I have grown numb to guides across America telling me what not to touch and where to walk, so that it came as a delight when the guide said: “The Whites loved company, so please feel free to sit anywhere.”
It sounds trifling, but in my travels across America, the Whites’ generosity (several generations removed) with their guests was a highlight.
I loved sitting on their sofa in front of the fireplace; picking William’s books off the shelves and thumbing through a number of first editions (he had many by Sinclair Lewis, and I was reading It Can’t Happen Here); and sitting at the desk in his office on the top floor, swiveling in his chair and looking through his papers and at his press pass for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
In particular, I enjoyed a letter to White from Franklin Roosevelt. White had supported Kansas Governor Alf Landon against Roosevelt in the 1936 election. It says much about the bipartisanship that then existed in America that two years later Roosevelt could write to him this letter:
Here is the seersucker picture, duly inscribed by the sucker to the seer!
You are right when you write about what happens when age creeps up on one— but you and I are fortunate in having rather serene natures. I think even you could still smile after 85% of the daily press interpreters and editors and most of the radio commentators treated you twenty-four hours a day the way they treat me.
If you ever feel your nerves getting a little bit on edge, take up stamp collecting — it is never too late.
I am very happy that you have come through in such fine shape and I hope you will be in Washington this Spring.
As ever yours,
[signed] Franklin Roosevelt
Maybe Donald Trump should take up stamp collecting? We already know he could go postal.
* * *
After the house tour, I ate a sandwich in Emporia, in its Walmarted downtown. The White family still publishes the Gazette, and I found the offices on Merchant Street, in a building as dated as broadsheet journalism.
Otherwise, Emporia has a forgotten quality, as though its heydays were when White (he was editor from 1895 to 1944) was writing his editorials (“When anything is going to happen in this country, it happens first in Kansas”).
I walked past some drug stores and looked in the windows of antique shops, but all the consumer action is out of town at the Flinthills Mall. Tumbleweed might well have been blowing along Commercial Street.
Later, I looked through my own copy of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, wondering what he had said about small town America, and I found this passage:
… the prairie towns no more exist to serve the farmers who are their reason of existence than do the great capitals; they exist to fatten on the farmers, to provide for the townsmen large motors and social preferment; and, unlike the capitals, they do not give to the district in return for usury a stately and permanent center, but only this ragged camp. It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization.
Even that angry view of town life has passed. If main street is anything these days, it is a Greek ruin—the columns of a lost civilization that is as remote from Mall America as the f-bombs of Anthony Scaramucci are from the speeches of Demosthenes.
Besides, who would write a novel about a Walmart Supercenter?
* * *
The small town of Lecompton, not far from Lawrence, was celebrating its history when I pulled up in the rental car and parked next to the public library.
A few streets were blocked off, and there were clusters of carnival rides and food trucks selling cotton candy and hot dogs. Because of the heat, I drank a lemonade. It felt like July 4th, except the occasion was less festive, and only a handful of kids were begging their parents for a ride.
I found the former state house, now Constitution Hall, down one of the side streets. It is a white, wooden building, and could well be a New England meeting house.
If you ever want to visit a room in America most associated with the outbreak of the Civil War, this would be a good one to choose.
I browsed through the exhibits downstairs, and then went upstairs to the loft space where the Kansas legislature debated what became known as the Lecompton Constitution (a faded copy is under glass).
The proposed Lecompton Constitution divided not just the United States (over slavery’s extension in the territories), but it broke in half the Democratic Party, contributed to the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, and led to the Civil War.
Imagine its impact if it had been approved.
* * *
If anyone is to blame for Lecompton, it is Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who in the 1850s had the goals of making a lot of money as a railroad lawyer and getting himself elected president of the United States. (Douglas was a walking conflict-of-interest, much like many around Donald Trump.)
In pushing through Congress the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas thought he had paid obeisance to both masters of his soaring ambitions.
Kansas-Nebraska overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed slavery in the emerging western territories, provided local voters were to approve its presence.
In time, the concept came to be known as “popular sovereignty,” and it became the creed of Southern Democrats especially, who feared that if all the territories came into the union as free states, eventually Congress would—with a northern majority—vote to eliminate slavery.
As a territory, Kansas had little interest in growing cotton or importing slaves. But southern interests, notably slaveholders in Missouri, hated the idea that both Nebraska and Kansas might join the union as free states.
They feared that the underground railroad would pick up passengers from slaves in nearby Missouri and whisk them across the border into free Kansas.
Each side in the slavery dispute began upping their antes in Kansas. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery militias—John Brown’s among them—began skirmishing in Kansas, and both sides fielded numerous slates for elections to the territorial legislature, which would draft the coming state’s constitution.
* * *
The Lecompton Constitution that would have declared Kansas a slave state was debated in Constitution Hall in 1857. What outraged opponents to the document was that it was approved by a legislature that was itself fraudulently elected. (Missourians had come across the border and stuffed the ballot boxes.)
Nevertheless, Lecompton satisfied the political requirements of President James Buchanan in Washington, D.C., who needed something in the West to keep together the fragile coalition of the Democratic party (which included men like Douglas in the North and slaveholders in the South).
President Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution, but it cost him his party and governing base, especially when Douglas (who was also contrarian and known to enjoy a drink) declared that it was a fraud.
Proof that it was came in 1858, when Kansas voted on the proposed constitution and it was defeated by a vote of 10,226 to 138.
When Congress debated the issue, a fistfight broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives. The Senate approved the constitution, but it was turned down in the House. (In those days, Congress had to approve territorial constitutions and the statehood application.)
Lecompton was also the issue that broke the Democratic party into several pieces for the 1860 election, in which Douglas was one of three Democratic candidates who ran against Lincoln. Already it had been one of the topics in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Having lost the 1860 election, much as it did the battle over the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, the South chose to secede.
In January 1861, Kansas would come into the Union as a free state, although by then the United States was a fractured nation.
* * *
The next day I had to drop the rental car at the Kansas City airport; after that I would then be back on my bike and Amtrak, for the last legs of the trip to Chicago and New York.
I thought about a last night of camping, but again the skies were lowering, and the words “tornado watch” on the radio curbed my enthusiasm for sleeping under the stars.
I decided to drive into Kansas City and find a hotel around the airport, where sleep is dispensed as if from vending machines.
Crossing the Missouri River into Kansas City, I felt depressed about the state of American travel, if not its history. Yes, I had liked following in the footsteps of Old Man Brown and visiting the White house in Emporia, but I was weary of malls, highways, vapid car radio chatter, and gas station coffee.
In my search for the back roads of the American experiment, I had hoped that I might offset my interstate days with nights spend camping, but that turned out to be an illusion—well, in any case, a long way from Kansas.
* * *
As best as I can tell, roadside America has become a video arcade, perhaps one that comes with an app, and anyone communing with the departed spirits of William Allen White or the Lecompton Constitution might well be a druid or pilgrim on some medieval road—occasionally sleeping in a La Quinta monastery or stopping for alms at Denny’s.
It broke my heart to see so many small American towns as empty shells, their main streets as devoid of vitality as their newspapers are of incisive prose. How does democracy work when the only source of local news is the Weather Channel?
I had even found Lawrence and the University of Kansas depressing. I had biked around the campus and hunted for a bookstore downtown, but all I found was loud music and tattoo parlors, which may explain why so many students had the inked look of Pacific islanders.
I did not blame Kansas—or for that matter Oklahoma and Arkansas—as much as I blamed myself for hitting the road with so many illusions. Maybe the question, to which I was seeking an answer, should have been: “What’s the matter with Matthew?”
I want to believe that American history—John Brown’s fanaticism or Jackson’s removal of the Cherokee nation—remains part of the current debate, that an explanation for Trump’s ignorance or the trillion-dollar crusade against Islam can be best understood by digging deeper into the American past.
Sadly, I came the conclusion that American history is just another collectible or hobby, something a few people find diverting on a Saturday afternoon, but nothing that is applicable to explain any of the country’s deficits (financial or political) or just the Opus Dei revenge fantasies of Steve Bannon.
At bit like Custer or John Brown, I had gone in search of an America that no longer exists, perhaps hoping that somewhere between Bentonville and Mickey Mantle’s house in Commerce I might find a few of the answers to the question that J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posed in the eighteenth century, when he asked during his own travels: “What then is the American, this new man?” (He gave up the search on Nantucket.)
Mostly what I learned is that it takes about five power washes to remove paint speckles from a rental car and that $20 tents don’t fare well against prairie twisters.
On the good days, I agreed with Virgil Starkwell, the inept bank robber in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, who said of his career choice: “It’s a great job, the hours are good, and you’re your own boss, and you travel a lot and you get to meet interesting people.”
As for unraveling some elusive keys to Donald Trump, I got no closer to finding the GPS coordinates of his dark soul than I did to those of the Wizard of Walton. At least I could take comfort in the words of L. Frank Baum, who in writing about Oz says: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
Crossing the Missouri—to me the grandest and most optimistic of American rivers, with its links to Lewis and Clark and the discovery of the West—my hope was that, more often than not, I had motored along some of the roads described in The Great Gatsby.
It his 1925 novel F. Scott Fitzgerald writes about finding: “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” He could easily have been describing Custer or that first Walmart.