Archive for June, 2012

  • Blog
  • June 25th, 2012


By Joel M. Vance

                In 1958, Dr. William Peden founded the University of Missouri Press and a year later the Press published the first of what would be 2,000 books by 1,000 writers.  That first book was The White Hound, a collection of short stories by Ward Dorrance and Thomas Mabry.

                Dr. Peden was a mild, genial man, a Jefferson scholar who published a book about Mr. Jefferson (for whom Missouri’s capital city is named).  He and Ward Dorrance were close friends and often shared a beaker of bourbon on the front porch of Confederate Hill, a north Columbia antebellum home, named by Dorrance who was an unreconstructed Johnny Reb.

                Dorrance also was gay and the University, in the throes of academic McCarthyism, ran him off the faculty where he had tenure, and the law, no less bigoted than the University, ran him out of the state to Georgetown University where he spent the rest of a long life.  He not only lost his job; he lost his beloved Confederate Hill and the proximity of Dr. Peden’s ailing wife Miriam who was Dr. Dorrance’s confidant.  Never again would he return to Missouri where he was born and raised.

                The reason all this is important, at least to me, is that both Dr. Peden and Dr. Dorrance were teachers of mine during my 1952-56 college years.  Dr. Dorrance taught French and Dr. Peden taught a  class in short story writing and was tolerant of my clumsy imitations of J.D. Salinger.  They were, hands down, the two best teachers I had in four years.  Both were kind, entertaining, and charitable toward a dumb country boy who was several light years short of their erudition and sophistication.

                And now the University, not content with raising a billion dollars in private contributions and in abandoning the Big Twelve conference after 100 years in its various aspects for more money in the Southeast Conference, has killed the Press, unceremoniously without notice, leaving a staff of 10 bewildered and rootless.  New University president Timothy Wolfe was bluntly honest about the reason for killing the Press.  Money.  The Press ran at a loss, but its estimated $50,000 annual deficit is a spit in the ocean of the two billion annual University budget.

                Few weeks go by without some plea for money from the University.  It has become a city-state within Missouri, apparently subject to its own rules and as secretive as the Vatican.  I filed two freedom of information requests for the paperwork on Dr. Dorrance’s ouster and was stonewalled both times.  Finally a threat to involve the Attorney General’s office got a reluctant reply which was superficial and without substance.  In the era before computers, everything was covered by paper, yet the University unaccountably has no records, so they say, of the Dorrance case—this at a time when the U actually did investigate and fire a journalism professor for being gay.  But penetrating the University wall of secrecy is like revealing the CIA’s darkest secrets and when it had a law school faculty member assigned full time to root out homosexuals.   

                The butchering of the Press leaves not only the staff stranded but also the thousand writers, among whom is me.  I was pleased and proud to have the Press publish my memoir Down Home Missouri.  There was at least a possibility the Press would publish my biography of Dr. Dorrance, so you can dismiss my irritation as sour grapes.  Sour grapes or not, the loss of the U Press is a betrayal of what a University is supposed to stand for.  In this case, the University is acting more like a heartless corporation than an institution of learning.

                I am no economic whizbang—I can’t balance a checkbook and never know the frazzled state of my finances, but I’m also a fiscal conservative, believing that it’s best to pay off debt and, for that matter, avoid debt in the first place.  The University consistently cries poor, yet it has spent a 10-year annual average of $138,000,000 on construction and currently has more than $450,000,000 in progress, planning or design. 

                It’s true that state support for Missouri’s colleges and universities is among the nation’s poorest.  Progressive in so many things, Missouri treats education like a luxury item rather than a necessity.  Be that as it may, killing the state’s university press is penny wise and pound foolish.  That’s a failure of the state—a Legislature mired in partisanship and incompetence. 

                But legislative neglect is not an excuse for killing off a valuable and vital program which has been proven by time and which offers promise for the future….it if had one.  There are 30 university presses operating today and most are subsidized by the parent school. We would likely not have had Norman MacLean’s wonderful A River Runs Through It without a U-press—it was published by the University of Chicago.  For that matter, Aldo Leopold’s seminal A Sand County Almanac was published by Oxford University Press. 

                To be sure many U-press books are unlikely to sell more than a few copies and be read by few readers, but all add to the sum of human knowledge—more than the sappy best-sellers by drugged-out Hollywood types or ego-tripping politicians.  They may be titillating, but they ain’t educational. 

                The Press would publish another of Dr. Dorrance’s books, a novelette titled A Man About the House which was laid in Jefferson City, Dorrance’s home town.  He could have been the voice of Missouri had he not been driven from the state—he wrote about floating the Ozark rivers long before that became a universally popular thing to do.  And he wrote a fine little book called We’re From Missouri which celebrated his Show Me Stated-ness.  His novel The Sundowners was laid in Cole and Callaway counties and his novel The Party at Mrs. Purefoy’s revolves around a flood on the Missouri River.  He wrote lovely prose, but after his life was severed almost in half by the repressive institution where he worked, he grew increasingly cranky and intolerant.  Blame that on MU too.  Why not?

                Over its 50-plus years, the Press published in many areas including, American and World History; Intellectual History; Biography; Journalism; African American Studies; Women’s Studies; American, British, and Latin American Literary Criticism; Journalism; Political Science, particularly Philosophy and Ethics; Regional Studies of the American Heartland; and Creative Nonfiction.

                The Press has published 21 books about Mark Twain and it would be interesting to see what Missouri’s greatest writer and most acid critic would have to say about the state’s flagship university executing its respected Press.  Wolfe, who is an MU grad, had been in office only three months before he axed the Press.  His previous job was as a software executive, not exactly a resume heavy on literary expertise. 

                Jennifer Hollingshead, a spokeswoman for the University, said the hatchetmen “understand the symbolic importance of the Press and what it means for a university system such as ours.”  It is not “symbolic” you dunderhead!  It’s part of the fabric of a diverse and rich university, every bit as significant as the med school, the vaunted journalism school or those richly-endowed football and basketball teams.

                If they truly understood what it means, the Press would not be condemned to a literary gallows next month to save a few bucks.  Maybe they can upgrade the old Tiger uniforms….no, wait, they already did that. 

                So, screw ‘em and the cash cow they rode in on.


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  • Blog
  • June 11th, 2012

Busting the Beatitudes

            Okay, this is for you right wing Christian conservative Bible-banging types who will inevitably vote for Mitt Romney, who listen to the odious Rush Limbaugh, and who think that only you are holy enough to deserve to run things for the rest of us sinners.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Poor in spirit” means humility and if you think Mitt Romney is humble, then why is he running for President?  Anyone as relentlessly ambitious as he lacks even a vestige of humility.  Was he humble when he said, “I like to fire people.”  Or when he bullied a kid thought to be gay in his high school by cutting the kid’s hair?   These are not the hallmarks of an humble man.  They are the clear signs of a bully.   Mitt doesn’t want the Kingdom of Heaven; he wants to make the United States the Kingdom of Mitt.  So much for the beatitudes as exemplified by the Mittster.

            Another Beatitude: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.    How do you square that with the aggressive, anything-but-meek mouthiness of the Tea Party whack jobs packing guns to rallies looking for an excuse to Dirty Harry somebody?  Is Rush Limbaugh “meek”?  Is his fawning acolyte Mitt “meek”?  When Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student a slut and a prostitute, the Mittster said, “Well those aren’t the words I would have used.”  Okay, Mitt, here’s a question: what words would you have used?  Whore?  Bitch?  You can’t just slither out of comment on the cruel words of your buddy—you have to show backbone once in your equivocal life and do the right thing and condemn Limbaugh for the sleazy hatemonger he is.

            Don’t confuse Mitt’s slimy wimpiness with meekness.  He may inherit the Presidency of the United States though the inefficiency of the Democrats, the evil influence of big time donors (including a sugar daddy gambling czar and the incomparably malevolent Koch Brothers) and the uncritical devotion of a slack-jawed bunch of right wingers who would vote for a pet skunk if it dressed up as an elephant.  But what legacy will this create for the country?  Us meek types expect four years of Mitt to bring another war, a return to economic depression, a further decline in the quality of life for most  Americans and a diminution of civil liberties unknown since any given one-party rule took over in any given failed country.

            But then maybe that’s my paranoia kicking in.

            Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.  I signed a petition today calling for an end to war and a peaceable kingdom or some such.  I felt like saying to the signature gatherer, an earnest young girl fumbling with several clipboards, “Lots of luck, sweetie—my entire life has been a succession of stupid wars created by old white guys like me to kill young people like you. “

            War exists because men are base creatures who are spawn of the devil if there is one, not children of God (and I refrain from adding “if there is one”).   It’s telling that even those who oppose war generally refer to World War Two as “the last good war.”  What’s good about an exercise that rips human beings to shreds, vaporizes them, robs them of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

            You’re attacked, you fight back.  It’s a given….as we did in World War Two, at terrible cost.  But we also killed each other, American against American, in record numbers from 1860-65.  And we have stuck our intrusive noses into almost countless and inarguably pointless wars since, including the two we still are fiddling with.  Each trims off part of a generation of youngsters whose only sin is being available to get killed on foreign soil.

            They don’t live long enough to inherit anything.  Children of God they may be but they also are the children of gold star mothers who can’t be all that excited that their kids have gone home to be with God.   I guess I didn’t inherit the warrior gene. There are those who thrive on combat, who revel in God, guts and glory.  But I suspect there are far more who are scared shitless and wish only to be home.

            We keep muttering about the need to intrude into Iran or Syria or some other sand castle where the inhabitants have bloodshed as a hobby and where we and our way of life are as welcome as camel dung.  We never learn.  Just because we have sophisticated weapons and young people to do our fighting for us, we are irresistibly compelled to use them. 

            The issue of religiosity has taken over politics—you can’t be elected President anymore if you don’t parade your Christianity (or in the case of Romney, downplay your Mormonism).  You’d better be front and center in a prominent pew every Sunday or you’re political history. 

            And you’d better be opposed to abortion in every case and at least implicitly homophobic (and it won’t hurt to imply you’re racist—just praise Rush Limbaugh and the gawp-jawed bigots will rush to vote for you).  There was a letter in our local newspaper, a right wing rag which entertains some extremist letters to the editor that are enough to gag a goat.

            But this one was from an apparently gay man who recounted a lifetime of homophobic insult and said this about the morons who write in condemning gay people as spawn of the Devil, “Will you follow pastor Charles Worley and round up all the homosexuals and put them behind electrified fences or will you remember the words of Jesus when he said, ‘what so ever you do to the least of your brothers you do unto me.”

            The Charles Worley mentioned is a North Carolina Baptist Bible banger who said this in a sermon from a pulpit in a church,  a sanctified building: “Build a great big large fence 50 or 100 miles long.  Put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals. Have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. You know what, in a few years, they’ll die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce.”  

            Now isn’t that cute—here’s your righteous Christian preacher, no less, a confirmed Man of God, advocating Hitlerian concentration camps.  Why, the faithful are building ovens as we speak!  He and his loathsome ilk are symptomatic of those who are on the other side of a divided country, one cleaved by ideological beliefs far wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon.

            There are the Old Testament advocates who see only storm and strife and those, who, like me, believe the softer New Testament holds better advice on living right.  The OT crowd worships a vengeful God, every ready to smite, and in turn they subscribe to (and practice) an eye for an eye, not always waiting for the first shot.  The NT crowd believes the Golden Rule is the answer to most uncomfortable situations–the turn the other cheek attitude.

            Unfortunately, it seems there are more OTs than NTs.  The OTs retained Scott Walker, a definite OT type, as Wisconsin’s governor, despite growing evidence he may be indicted, like a succession of Illinois criminal governors.  These right wing Christian conservatives probably will boot Barack Obama out of office because he’s guilty of GWB (governing while black) and install Mitt Romney, dog molester and teenage barber of suspected gay classmates.

            Don’t be fooled—all of these sanctimonious hypocrites will deny their bigotry, parade their Christianity and claim their way is the only way, meanwhile practicing bigotry, violating in every way the spirit of Jesus, and refusing to see any viewpoint other than their own. 

            In 78 years I have not seen a country so disgustingly wrong-headed.  Sometimes in the dark of the night the only consolation is that I won’t live another 78 years to see what damage these creatures will wreak.  But our kids will and that’s so damned sad.

            The Bible bangers believe in the Second Coming.  I’d settle for a second Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower or Johnson—someone with guts and backbone.  I think it may be too late for Jesus. 


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