In our culture of TV and movie entertainment it is barely possible to arrive at the age of 47* without knowing the identity of Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud”. I am no exception. Even though I had never got around to watching the movie Citizen Kane, somewhere along the line I ingested the answer to the question that drives the storyline of Orson Welles’ much-lauded 1941 classic. I won’t spill the beans for those of you under 47, or those of you over 47 who have beaten the odds. But I finally rented the movie and watched it a couple of months ago while Angela had an evening engagement.
*At this write I am no longer 47.
In latter years I’ve noticed something about how the path of my inquiries into the world around me unfolds. I don’t know what to call it, but it has to do with following threads. Or maybe a good metaphor would be that it is like following passageways in a labyrinth, and in this case the labyrinth represents the vast areas of cultural knowledge that I haven’t yet explored. I’ll give you an example.
You know we went on a hike up Squak Mountain last year. As a result of that hike, on which we discovered an old chimney standing in the forest on top of the mountain, commentor Louis ended up sending me a book about the Bullitt family, who once owned the house that once housed the chimney. Reading that book educated me about Dorothy Bullitt, her son Stimson, and the television, radio and publishing empire they built from small beginnings here in Seattle and owned until just a few years ago. In the process of reading that book (King: The Bullitts of Seattle and Their Communications Empire by O. Casey Corr), I ran into a century’s worth of interesting characters.
One of these characters was William Randolph Hearst, who was pretty much a blank to me. The name meant only the name until I read that Hearst’s greater empire had once owned a big portion of the Bullitts’ corporate stock, and that Dorothy Bullitt had pursuaded him to sell his shares back to her. I found that single fact curiously titillating. I knew nothing about Hearst except that he owned lots of newspapers and the “castle” at San Simeon that my friend Gretchen and I once drove past on Highway 101 in California. I remember it gleaming in the late afternoon sun up on its hill as we puttered past in her green Volkswagen Bug, which she called the Loogie and which was soon to lose a taillight when she would back into an ancient cedar in Yosemite National Park, an achievement she was aided in by the thickness of frost on the back window and my failure to communicate the approach of the tree.
I’m rambling, but that’s the point here. It’s all connected. After reading the Bullitt book, a lingering curiosity about Hearst kept rising into my consciousness, sparked again when I reread Murray Morgan’s classic midcentury assessment of Seattle’s history up to then, Skid Road, in which a chapter treats of the early battles among the city’s several newspapers, one of which, the Post-Intelligencer, became a Hearst paper (R.I.P.: it was buried last year). You can see this thread forming, but it’s not a single strand leading ahead of me. Yes, the Bullitt book caused me to read the Morgan book, but both separately mentioned Hearst, so I began to feel that there was a thread leading off orthogonally that I should pick up.
Since Hearst was on my mind, I finally decided to watch Citizen Kane, something I’d been meaning to do for decades because it continues to be regarded by those who decide such things as the greatest movie ever made — the Mona Lisa of cinema. Although Orson Welles was forced to deny it to fend off litigation by Hearst’s corporation, it has always been known that Hearst was the inspiration for Kane’s character. (Note: the old publisher himself didn’t believe in litigation and urged his corporation, over which he had temporarily lost control, to leave it alone).
Having then watched the greatest movie of all time, I wanted to know more about Hearst the actual man. I contacted my local independent bookseller, Marni at Island Books, and ordered up a copy of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw. I’m not about reviewing the book here, though I will say that it is fascinating and well written (and as to the subject, I’m really surprised at how much I like and admire the crazy old bird; Hearst was nothing like I would have guessed).
But the threads continue to merge and diverge. The Hearst biography mentions the Chief’s fondness for the writing of Aldous Huxley, whom I know only as the author of Brave New World, a book I have never read. Apparently Huxley wrote 127 essays for Hearst’s papers over the course of several years as the most “prolific” member of a cadre of Hearst authors that included Mussolini, who got his start as a journalist (did you know that?). Within a day of reading this, I came across the phrase “brave new world” in another book I’m currently reading, We Who Dared to Say No to War, edited by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Obviously the reference is to Huxley’s most famous work, which book, as I said, I am the only person on earth never to have read.
So now I leave a little flag by the Huxley corridor in the labyrinth. That passage seems to be tugging at me. I can’t get to it right now, and it may be years, and it may never happen, but on the other hand, at some point I may find myself back at the entrance to this corridor, and noting a flag there, or a whole collection of flags that may have gathered there, I might finally venture forth into familiarity with Huxley.
The threads lead off in other directions, too. I put a little flag by Paul Thiry, the man who designed the house on Squak Mountain for Stimson Bullitt. He also designed the Seattle Center for the 1962 World’s Fair, and is considered to have “brought modernism to the Northwest”, according to Corr. Since I read Corr’s book, Thiry’s name has come into my periphery a few times.
Another thread goes off from Citizen Kane to the American Film Institute’s list of “Best 100 Films” ever made. I started reflecting on this list recently, noting that I’ve only seen about a third of the movies on it. This led to my renting Casablanca, which, though I’m sure I’d seen every portion of it at one time or another, I had never seen straight through from beginning to end. I had heard all the famous lines from it (“of all the gin joints…”, “play it, Sam”, “here’s looking at you, kid”, “…a beautiful friendship”) except the very best one, which goes thus:
Rick: …I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.”
Inspired to continue watching movies from the “Best 100” list, I watched Lawrence of Arabia, a movie whose near four hours I wasn’t sure I had seen all the way through before. I was so impressed by that story that now I have left a whole cluster of little flags by the T. E. Lawrence portal. I feel a desire to read his biography, to find out what kind of early life results in that kind of character.
To the extent that Lawrence’s story centers on Arabia and the First World War, that path is also likely to lead me to flags that have been flapping for many decades around various nodal points having to do with Muslim and Arab culture and history, which held a good deal of interest for me when I was younger in a way that, say, African or Russian or Far Eastern studies never did. I read most of Paul Bowles‘ North African novels in my early thirties. I travelled to Morocco in an attempt to reach the Sahara Desert (failed — another story).
Movies and books are the things that most often play a large role in keeping threads active. Some of the threads, as you can see, seem to continue for a long time, and others seem to end abruptly after a bunch of them converge, though their ends may be merely temporary dormancy. A year or so ago I happened to think upon the Hatfields and McCoys, how I didn’t know anything “factual” about them. What I knew I learned from the Bugs Bunny cartoon. So I read a book about this sorrowful chapter of the Tug Fork River Valley history called Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900 by Altina L Waller. It was superbly researched and dully written, as though it were someone’s doctoral thesis. In this book, which I found fascinating, I came across the name Matewan, which is both the name of a town and the name of a creek that empties into the Tug Fork River. I had heard the name long ago as a movie title, though for some reason (possibly because I sounded it out as “mah – teh – wan” in my mind) I thought it was one of those Japanese art films by Kurosawa, like Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact the locals pronounce it with just two syllables and a long ‘a’ — “mate-wan”.
At about the same time that I read Waller’s book, I heard a song on KBCS‘ recently cancelled “Lunch with Folks” program called “Blue Diamond Mines”, which, as sung by the Heartbeats Rhythm Quartet, absolutely riveted me. It was a cover of Jean Ritchie‘s ballad about coal mining life and it mentioned “John L.”, who turned out to be John L. Lewis, who united the mine workers in the face of corporate opposition. I didn’t really know anything about this.
The time seemed right to rent Matewan (it’s by John Sayles, director of The Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star), which turns out to be about the clash of striking mine workers against Pinkerton thugs hired by the mine companies in the Coal Wars of 1912 – 1921. A decisive drama in those wars unfolded in Matewan. The sheriff of that town ended up being a hero, defending the local miners and refusing to be paid off by the corporations, even though they owned the town. The sheriff’s name was Sid Hatfield. And yes, he was one of those Hatfields.
Well, if you were expecting a final point to all this there isn’t one. Or rather, the point is not a point but a…what does geometry call those things that are like line segments but they don’t end?…yes, a ray. The dark vault of my mind is festooned with little yellow flags fluttering and flapping, their indicated corridors awaiting exploration, and each one is like a ray that goes off and never ends. I will only be able to address a subset of them during my lifetime.
Is it like this for anyone else?