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[Editor’s Note: Despite the firm advice of counsel, Louis Warren is back to talk to us about the Homstead Act. Louis is also the author of this book, which won every prize ever. Louis’s a bit selfish, you see. One really big prize wasn’t enough for him.]

On this day in history President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, thereby inaugurating one of the most popular government programs in American history. Under the terms of the act, settlers could get 160 free acres — sometimes more — in return for making them into a private farm. Hundreds of thousands of settlers — black, white, immigrant, women and men — took up claims on the frontier, launching one of the great sagas of American history.

For all that, like so much else in the American West, homesteads have recently fallen into that dark and dreary world of right-wing symbolism. Homesteaders have long been icons of individualism. In recent years, advocates for privatizing social security have hailed the Homestead Act as a model (or a fable) of resource privatization. George W. Bush lobbied to privatize Social Security with the Homestead Act as an example of how Americans have found “ the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence.” David Brooks is certain that private investment accounts can replace Social Security and turn people into capitalists because, after all, “the Homestead Act turned people into pioneers.” George Will points out that homesteaders privatized 270 million acres, about 11 percent of today’s America. “Rarely has a social program worked so well.”

But even a cursory glance at the Homestead Act’s real history belies these simplistic conclusions. Sure, the Homestead Act had its successes. Many American families have homesteader ancestors, and many of them were genuine heroes who endured privation and hardship to root their crops and kin in New World soil. The fact that my great-grandfather earned a homestead is a high-point in family lore.

But the law’s failures were profound. Homesteaders may have privatized more than one in ten of America’s acres, but in fact, most who tried homesteading never gained a square inch from the law. For every settler who staked a claim and built a cabin between 1862 and the day the frontier closed, in 1890, at least two packed up and left their claims without ever gaining title. That’s right: the failure rate among would-be homesteaders was sixty-six percent.

Why did those resilient, risk-taking frontier settlers pack it in? To resolve that very question, Congress investigated much, and legislated often. Efforts to stem the flow of failed farmers led to bigger parcels and extra acres for planting trees and digging irrigation ditches. But with high prices for barbed wire, livestock, plows, and other equipment, and with the unreliable rainfall of the Far West, and with the fact that railroads and other speculators acquired most of the best land, making the frontier into farms was still too expensive for the vast majority, even when the land was free. Even with added incentives, the failure rate of aspiring homesteaders never fell much below fifty percent, and may have been much higher. Passed in hopes that urban citizens would take to the country, farming proved so difficult that the flow of farm dwellers to the city actually increased in the years after 1862. In the end, most of the West’s successful farms were not earned under the law, but bought from railroads or other large owners, by customers with cash. For every 160 acres earned by homesteaders, 400 acres were bought on the open market. Think of it this way: homesteaders settled 11 percent of the current United States, but home buyers settled more than twice as much.

Even these were not the full extent of the law’s failures. For those who stuck it out and earned their acreage, the future was often worse, not better. The global increase in farm production drove the price of crops sharply downward for decades after the Civil War. A new round of crop deflation hit in the 1920s, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to pay their bills. In the 1930s, drought turned many a green homestead to dusty brown. Banks foreclosed on mortgages. Debt drove farmers to sell cheap and move to town. The exploding numbers of the rural poor (among them my grandfather, the homesteader’s son) inspired John Steinbeck to conjure the Joads, and at the national level helped mobilize the public to create programs like Social Security in the first place. Except for in Alaska and a few other places, homesteading ended in 1935, when Franklin Roosevelt withdrew all remaining public lands from settlement.

The history of the Homestead Act is astonishing and often inspirational. When it concerns successful settlers, it offers remarkable tales of risk and reward.

But it also provides a cautionary tale about forcing private citizens to shoulder too much risk, and the hard death and eye-popping failure rates of the frontier’s most famous land law should make us think twice about following anyone bent on re-creating its supposed “successes.” In fact, Social Security has provided far more Americans with more wealth than the 1862 law ever did. At least, it hasn’t inspired songs like this one:

Frank Baker’s the name and a bachelor I am,
I’m keeping old batch on an elegant plan.
You’ll find me out west in the county of Lane,
I’m starving to death on a government claim.
My house is built of the natural soil,
The walls are erected according to Hoyle.
The roof has no pitch but is level and plain,
And I always get wet when it rains.

Hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The home of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea.
I’ll sing loud its praises and tell of its fame,
While starving to death on a government claim.

Nineteenth Century Folk Song – Author Unknown

Indeed, if giving young people the chance to build wealth for the future is our aim, there are other laws that might provide more useful lessons. Decades before the Homestead Act, Congress began endowing public universities with land grants. The same year the Homestead Act came into being, Congress also adopted a less famous but ultimately more successful measure, the Land Grant Act, which endowed state universities with tens of thousands of acres. Institutions of higher learning sprang up and expanded across the West. The public acquired new access to college education, and the investment continues to pay handsome returns. Today more than ever, university education provides tools to make careers and build wealth, in a far more reliable way than western farming ever did. The state of California, for a brief few decades, and not so long ago, even made university education as free as land in the frontier West. Recreating that opportunity would cost much less than privatizing Social Security, and it seems certain to provide more wealth, too.

For students of post-war US history, the GI Bill stands as one of the towering achievements of the New Deal coaltion. In the wake of WWII, the so-called Servicemen’s Readjustment Act offered veterans returning home tuition to go to college or vocational school, up to a year of unemployment insurance, and loans to purchase homes or businesses.

Now, VoteVets is hitting John McCain hard for not supporting the latter-day GI Bill, the Webb-Hagel Bill. The above ad highlights one of the most sickening disjunctures between the rhetoric and reality of today’s Republican Party: braying about supporting the troops while treating them like expendable labor. From the horrible conditions at Walter Reed, to the abuse that is stop-loss, to the appalling rates of suicide among soldiers, and now to McCain’s and Bush’s partisan intransigence, the mainstream of the Republican Party uses the women and men who fight this country’s wars to score cheap political points while refusing to treat their service with the respect it deserves.

Via Yglesias.

In the student union here, right now, in 2008, there’s a poster of Marilyn Monroe—it’s the one with five different poses, all obviously from the same shoot, each differently colorized—it’s familiar to me because we had the same poster in my freshman dorm room, in 1991. There is a Marilyn Monroe thing, even now. It amounts to more, I think, than “to a hottie dying young.” Here is how John Irving put it:

… what could Marilyn Monroe’s death ever have to do with me?

This passage probably goes on a bit further than it needs to, making even more explicit the parallel between Marilyn Monroe and America, the beautiful mistreated desirable objects of powerful men’s careless use deprived of the right to be ends in themselves … but that’s the right theme, the Fitzgeraldian vast carelessness with the fresh green breast of the new world.

Seemingly less sexy than very stoned, Marilyn Monroe wished President Kennedy a “Happy Birthday” on this day in 1962. The performance, in Madison Square Garden, was Monroe’s last major public event before she died on August 5, 1962. For that and many other reasons, this video has always creeped me out, though you’re welcome to tell me in the comments what a tin ear I have for pop culture.

Groucho v. Kermit.

You may have noticed that we don’t normally do historic birthdays or deaths. But I’m going to make an exception today, because on this day in 1990, Jim Henson died. And we seem to be angling to become the Internet’s go-to blog for all things Henson. Regardless, the above video is Part One of the Muppets’ tribute to Henson after his death. The first three minutes are almost unbearably sad. So, if that’s not your thing, below you’ll find another Henson tribute, from his funeral, featuring the hilarious Kevin Clash. Finally, here’s the Times‘s Henson obit.

Chris Matthews remains an insufferable windbag. But this is funny — though I began to feel bad for the poor winger as the segment wore on and on and on.

Via TPM.

Or, as we call them now, DFH’s. Frank Rich on Norman Mailer on 1968, in the New York Review of Books (which is, as we know, the real outlet for public intellection; please please ask me to write an essay on the new historical revisionism, NYRoB!):

… he is left to contemplate the Yippies in Lincoln Park with their signs of “Vote Pig in 68”: “Were those unkempt children the sort of troops with whom one wished to enter battle?” He frets that Vietnam and “Black Power” are “pushing him to that point where he would have to throw his vote in with revolution,” and asks, “What price was he really willing to pay?”

This question is not resolved by the end of the book, which finds the author, manhandled but unbowed by Daley’s thugs, repairing to the revels at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion. But Mailer knows the trajectory that lies ahead for the country. “We will be fighting for forty years,” he suggests. Perhaps he thought that was hyperbole at the time, but we now know it was portent.

If you’re reading this, you know the American West has an Edge, but you may not know it has a Center. From that Center, Patricia Nelson Limerick writes about how to be a public scholar.

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On this day in 1893, the Supreme Court decided Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U. S. 698, which as Sabrina Karim points out, is worth noting.

The case asked the Court to review the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its 1892 successor (remember, the original expired after ten years).

The Court located the federal government’s power to deal with immigrants outside the Constitution, and in the inherent rights deriving from sovereignty. “The right to exclude or to expel all aliens, or any class of aliens, absolutely or upon certain conditions, in war or in peace, being an inherent and inalienable right of every sovereign and independent nation, essential to its safety, its independence, and its welfare,” the justices said; all we need to do is check to see whether this inherent right has been constitutionally implemented.

And, the Court said, it had. Basically, Congress could do with immigrants as it pleased—could assign the power of deportation to the executive branch alone, or could admit the judicial branch’s involvement—but it was up to Congress to make this decision.

Though it was true that in their persons and property, immigrants enjoyed Fourteenth Amendment protections, those did not extend to a safeguard against deportation:

Chinese laborers, therefore, like all other aliens residing in the United States for a shorter or longer time, are entitled, so long as they are permitted by the Government of the United States to remain in the country, to the safeguards of the Constitution, and to the protection of the laws, in regard to their rights of person and of property, and to their civil and criminal responsibility. But they continue to be aliens, having taken no steps towards becoming citizens, and incapable of becoming such under the naturalization laws, and therefore remain subject to the power of Congress to expel them or to order them to be removed and deported from the country whenever, in its judgment, their removal is necessary or expedient for the public interest.

Now, the 1892 act required Chinese in the U.S. to register themselves and to carry papers with them. It thus created the presumption of illegality for anyone of Chinese extraction. The Court was fine with this, and noted that Congress has, so far as the justices could see, exercised forbearance.

Congress, under the power to exclude or expel aliens, might have directed any Chinese laborer found in the United States without a certificate of residence to be removed out of the country by executive officers, without judicial trial or examination, just as it might have authorized such officers absolutely to prevent his entrance into the country. But Congress has not undertaken to do this.

Justice Brewer dissented, and couldn’t resist a (weak) joke:

The Constitution has no extraterritorial effect, and those who have not come lawfully within our territory cannot claim any protection from its provisions; and it may be that the National Government, having full control of all matters relating to other nations, has the power to build, as it were, a Chinese wall around our borders, and absolutely forbid aliens to enter. But the Constitution has potency everywhere within the limits of our territory, and the powers which the National Government may exercise within such limits are those, and only those, given to it by that instrument. Now, the power to remove resident aliens is, confessedly, not expressed.

He also noted that the law was at odds with the 1868 Burlingame Treaty between the U.S. and China, which recognized “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects, respectively for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents.”

But the majority of the Court anticipated this objection, saying treaties, while “supreme,” were also merely “promissory,” and subject to the whim of Congress.

On this day in 1607, 104 British colonists founded Jamestown, the first continuous English settlement in North America. From the beginning, the colony was a disaster. Jamestown lay next to a malarial swamp; the colonists dumped their trash into a nearby river, causing an outbreak of dysentery and typhus; and they were, by all accounts, too lazy to put in crops for food during that first spring and summer they spent in America.

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I would read their next books without hesitation. Who’s on that list for you?

For some reason, I never post about one of my main obsessions, bicycling. But this photoessay, about a group of cyclists who highlight LA’s insane transportation planning choices, caught my eye. These folks ride their bikes on the city’s freeways during rush hour — like Critical Mass on steroids. I’ve always assumed that such demonstrations do little beyond infuriating motorists, making it more likely that the guy in the F-150 will run me off the road when next I go for a long ride. But with gas inching toward $1 million/gallon, maybe it’s useful to expose people in cars to the freeom riding a bike offers. Also, here’s a video, if that’s your thing.

Via boing boing.

Josh Marshall wrote a thoughtful post tonight about Appalachia, the region’s Scots-Irish settlers, their historical antipathy for both slavery and slaves, and the implications of all the above for contemporary voting patterns. I guess this is Josh’s way of reminding the world that he’s a historian and not just a new-media mogul. Regardless, his post is worth a look. In the same vein, the proprietor of Enik Rising expands on Josh’s argument, bringing to bear a similar analysis on Colorado’s Democratic primary. The result? It looks like Josh may be onto something. I suppose this is where I should note that their conclusions are overly determined. Because I’m extremely smart for knowing that phrase. Seriously, though, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Albion’s Seed. So I probably shouldn’t find arguments like the ones above so interesting. But I do. Oh well, I’m nothing if not inconsistent.

If you picked up your objective, neutral, full of fit-to-print news New York Times on this day in 1933, you saw the headline, “PRESIDENT SIGNS FARM BILL, MAKING INFLATION THE LAW.” The day before, Roosevelt had signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which included all kinds of market-jiggering and subsidy-for-nonproduction mechanisms meant to restore “parity”—an equivalent standard of living in the countryside and the city. But so far as the New York Times was concerned, the important part of the bill was the Thomas Amendment, or Title III of the law, which permitted the President to determine the value of the dollar in gold or silver.

The Times headline notwithstanding, inflation wasn’t the law, it was a tool in Roosevelt’s kit—one that, many economic historians now believe, he used rather well. In Christina Romer’s 1992 article, “What Ended the Great Depression?”, the answer is, mainly, Roosevelt’s use of a managed currency under the Thomas Amendment and related powers.

Non-economic historians—like, of course, Richard Hofstadter, who noted axiomatically that “the rural masses look for statesmen of the cheap dollar”—have tended to think relatively little of the plaint constant from the settlement of the plains onward that the currency needed a little uplift. But sometimes the rural masses get it right. Senator Elmer Thomas (Democrat of Oklahoma, he of the amendment) said, “For over three years the people of the United States have been engaged in war with the forces of deflation. Through the curtailment of credits and restriction of currency [he’s looking at you, the Federal Reserve], causing enforced liquidation, bank failures, bankruptcies and hoarding, we have lost from circulation some thirty billions of bank credit or deposit money.” He meant for the president to set it right.

Now, you know that if you buy one little book on the New Deal this year, it should be this one. But if you buy two, the second one should be Anthony Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days. Badger’s especially good on rural policy, and writes with an eviable clarity and concision.

Part three of this conversation (part 1, part 2). About privilege, rhetoric, and when it’s okay to tell your students you’re gay (especially if you’re not).

Ari asks Michael about privilege, so you have three middle-aged, tenured, straight white guys in a room talking about privilege. Well, you’re getting the insiders’ perspective, anyway.

There is no wiggling. Giblets and I are going on the lam, to a land where wiggling is properly appreciated.

In case you’re curious, the deal is, the YouTubes don’t do just-audio (afaik). So there needs to be a picture of some kind. One could simply stick on a still and have done with it, but I thought our readers would want more. And maybe you do, but you want a flavor of more—a non-wiggly flavor—I don’t stock.

Sacramento Bee photographer Paul Kitagaki Jr. is looking for Japanese Americans who were interned and who appear in these photos. If anyone can help, his email is

I’d like to go on the pilgrimage to Manzanar one year. I was about set to go this year, but couldn’t, owing to circumstances. Maybe next year.

[Editor’s Note: Vance Maverick says that he’s a “software developer and occasional blog commenter who lives in San Francisco.” But I have other ideas. I prefer to think of him riding the range, hat pulled low to keep the setting sun out of his eyes. Regardless, he was kind enough to provide us with an entry for This Day in History. Thanks, Vance.]

On this day in 1978, Louis Zukofsky, one of the most important of the “second generation” of American modernist poets, died in Port Jefferson, Long Island. He was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on January 23 or so, 1904 (the date is uncertain), and spent most of his career in New York.

After public schools, including Stuyvesant High, he entered Columbia in 1920, alongside the likes of Lionel Trilling and Mortimer Adler. The professor who influenced him most there was Mark Van Doren (who, writing later on “Jewish Students I Have Known,” called him “a subtle poet” with an “inarticulate soul”). His closest friendship was with Whittaker Chambers. It was supposedly Zukofsky who urged Chambers to read the Communist Manifesto, but he never joined the party himself. He earned an MA in 1924, with a thesis on Henry Adams.

Setting out as a poet, he lived by miscellaneous jobs (bookstores, substitute teaching), until finding work with the WPA in the 1930s. He married Celia Thaew, and they had one son, Paul, a violin prodigy (and later a prominent new-music performer). He did technical writing during the war, then finally found a stable position at Brooklyn Polytechnic, where he taught from 1947 to 1965.

Why celebrate him on an American history blog? It’s not just that he’s important in literary history (or that this happens to be my favorite blog). I think he belongs here because he was dealt a cultural “hand” like many others, but played it in an utterly distinctive way, using it to push the modernist project further than anyone.

Our natural condition, as Americans, is rootlessness — immigration, internal migration, the “melting pot”. Of course there are wide differences in circumstance — Zukofsky, child of immigrants, speaking Yiddish before English, attending a university where he could not teach, must have felt a wide distance from the elite American culture of a Henry Adams. But not far beneath the confidence of that elite, at least in the arts, was a painful insecurity with respect to the mother cultures of Europe. The immediate exemplars, for a poet of the day, were Pound and Eliot, who both tried to reckon with the “mind of Europe” by moving there, and becoming it. There’s a touch of overcompensation in their labors — “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, for example, is magnificent but protests too much. Zukofksy too wrote an intensely bookish poetry focused on the classics, but with a detachment, with no rhetoric to persuade you he is of the same club as the masters, and with an omnivorous eye and ear for the modern world, especially his own New York. (For a light example, take one of his renderings of Cavalcanti’s “Donna mi prega”, preserving all its intricate structure, into Brooklynese, as “A Foin Lass Bodders Me”.) Also unlike his forebears, he embraced polysemy of the word, even to the point of indeterminacy in the text — he once wrote a note on the word “bay” in a poem, enumerating every sense of the word attested in the language and accepting them all. The younger poet Robert Duncan put it most concisely, noting on reading Zukofsky in the ’30s “a kind of self-consciousness in which not the poet but the act of writing was this ‘self’.”

Zukofsky’s first major poem was “Poem beginning ‘The'” (1927), which is among other things a takeoff on “The Waste Land”. He submitted it to Pound ‘s magazine The Exile; Pound accepted it, and became a sort of mentor to Zukofsky in the 1930s. Pound’s antisemitism, sometimes open, complicated the relationship, but he endorsed Zukofsky in a dedication (with Basil Bunting) as a “struggler in the desert”, and persuaded Harriet Monroe to let him edit the February 1931 issue of Poetry.

As editor, Zukofsky marshalled a brigade of obscure poets (notably George Oppen), under the banner of an enigmatic manifesto proclaiming them “Objectivists”. Nothing to do with Ayn Rand: rather, in the most condensed formulation,

An objective–rays of the object brought to a focus,
An objective–nature as creator–desire for what is objectively perfect,
Inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

The movement vanished almost as soon as it was born. From here on, Zukofsky focused his own poetic objective on the composition of a long poem, “A”. He worked on it until the 1960s, when he finished “A”-23, and his wife Celia capped the book with “A”-24, a vast collage of extracts from earlier parts of “A” and other texts (set in parallel with Handel keyboard pieces as accompaniment). The material of “A”, historical, contemporary, and highly personal, is as various as its styles: from a Williamsesque free verse to extreme formalism (the tightly rhymed “canzoni” of “A”-9), occasionally minimalism (“A”-16 is four words long) and in the later parts, an increasingly condensed form based on a regular number of words per line.

In his Long Island retirement, he worked steadily on his last major work, 80 Flowers, in which each poem is five lines of five words on one flower each, ravishingly beautiful and practically opaque. Meanwhile, his reputation grew. He encouraged and corresponded with younger poets, such as Robert Creeley. The University of California Press brought out “A” complete, in 1979 (he was able to see the proofs before he died). His poetry is well-established now in academic study, and he has been an inspiration to new generations of poets, notably the “Language” tendency arising in the 1970s.

For a taste of his poetry, here’s the ending of “A”-11. It’s a dedication of his life’s work, his “song”, to his wife and son; at the end, the song itself begins to speak, telling them:


His voice in me, the river’s turn that finds the
Grace in you, four notes first too full for talk, leaf
Lighting stem, stems bound to the branch that binds the

Tree, and then as from the same root we talk, leaf
After leaf of your mind’s music, page, walk leaf
Over leaf of his thought, sounding
His happiness: soung sounding
The grace that comes from knowing
Things, her love our own showing
Her love in all her honor.

My main source is Mark Scroggins’s fine new biography The Poem of a Life. For criticism, a good starting point is the Zukofsky special in Jacket 30 (July 2006). (This is drawn from the proceedings of a centennial conference at Columbia.) See also Ron Silliman’s blog, passim. And most of all, see the books. I swear by “A” and the Complete Short Poetry, but the best place to start is probably the recent Selected Poems edited by Charles Bernstein.

there was X. Also, because I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. I’m not sure why.

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