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Infrastructure: There but for the grace of God...

I'd never been to Minneapolis, Minnesota in my entire life.

Then, last summer, I was invited to give a talk at the gorgeous, glass-sheathed Public Library on my new book, The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War; and this past spring, I delivered a keynote address, on the Marshall Plan and Its Meanings, 1947-2007, at the 100th annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.What a great city, and what friendly, welcoming people. During the course of my two stays in Minneapolis, I had the opportunity to get out and about, and to meet many players in the arts and culture community, philanthropists, corporate donors, and civic activists. I learned that Minneapolis has the highest percentage of volunteerism of any city in America, and now I see why.

One of the nicest young people I met there was a woman named [for the purpose of this piece] "Rebecca," who worked in the administration of one of the major up-and-coming institutions. She drove me around town, accompanied me to media venues and cocktail receptions and book-signings, and introduced me to many citizens I now think of as friends. On our various trips hither and yon, Rebecca regaled me with affectionate stories of her young son, just learning to talk and walk, and her entrepreneurial husband, and their adventuresome lives.

Flash forward to the evening of Wednesday, August 1, and there's yours truly, determinedly pounding away on the treadmill at Platinum Gym on route 23 in Verona. Between peeks at the new issue of the New York Review of Books, I glanced up at the screen where Wolf Blitzer was telling us why it was so important that we keep our eyes glued to the Situation Room.Suddenly -- there it was -- the twisted steel, chunks of concrete, rising dust, swirling Mississippi, upended cars, whup-whup-whup of helicopter blades -- the astonishing, horrifying collapse of the I-35 bridge.

In my endorphin-stoked brain, it was all about Minneapolis=Rebecca.

I dashed home and called her cell. No answer. I called her work number. No answer. I emailed her. It came back. I re-dialled her cell and left a lame, halting voice-mail, hoping, praying that she and her family were OK.

I stared out the window and pondered our absurdly-connected world, a world in which I could be worrying about someone a thousand miles away within hours of a cataclysm that had already claimed the lives of up to a dozen people and that might or might not have involved her.

Then Rebecca called back: That very afternoon, she told me, she and her husband and son had been getting ready to head over to St. Paul for an extended family dinner. Amidst the laborious preparations to urge her son out of the house -- as anyone who has a toddler will know, no small feat -- her husband found out he had to work that night, so couldn't accompany them.

This turn of events gave Rebecca a welcome five-minute head-start on her rush-hour drive.

She and her son, strapped in his car-seat, crossed the I-35 bridge a little earlier than planned.

By the time they arrived at her grandmother's house, the boy was cranky, tired and hungry. Rebecca sat him down in front of that perennial baby-sitter known as the TV, and turned it on...

...and saw, in living color, the disaster she'd barely missed.

It all started with Thomas Edison

Back in the day, as they like to say now, when I was writing Edison: Inventing the Century (Hyperion, 1995, University of Chicago Press, 2001), driving every Friday from my home in Upper Montclair all the way down Valley Road to the Edison National Historic Site , sitting at a rough-hewn laboratory table, leafing through thousands of drawings in The Master's laboratory notebooks -- little did I know how inflammatory my next book would be.

It wasn't until I journeyed into the Big City to the Berg Collection at The New York Public Library in Manhattan and asked to see copies of the pocket journals of naturalist John Burroughs that I hit upon a dirty little secret -- transcripts of antisemitic fireside conversations between Edison and his close friend Henry Ford on their summer camping trips in the Adirondacks during and after World War I.

"The Jews caused the War," Ford said, and Burroughs jotted down in his spidery hand, "the Jews caused the outbreak of thieving and robbery across the country, the Jews caused the inefficiency of the Navy." When Ford continued, lashing out at railroad magnate Jay Gould as a "Shylock" and the prime example of the kind of avarice the auto maker abhorred -- it all became too much for poor Burroughs to bear. He had to interrupt. Jay Gould had been his childhood wrestling playmate and a tried and true Presbyterian.

My publisher wanted me to follow-up the Edison biography with a full-scale tome on Ford. I demurred. I do not establish as a prerequisite for my biographies that I have to like the person or even admire them. But by then, I had become drawn into the convoluted pathology of antisemitism and, more pertinently, the compelling question of what causes a man who is a household name and the paradigm of American entrepreneurialism to develop such an aberrant and vicious aspect of his personality?

When the proposal for what eventually became Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass-Production of Hate began to circulate among the publishing community, several editors called me to ask why on earth I would want to venture into such dark territory. Leave it alone, they warned. To which I replied that I did not expect to be able to come up with the solution -- but I certainly believed I could take some scholarly steps toward defining the problem.

In the end, I thanked John Burroughs for being a great listener. More than any other infecting stereotype, it was the "Jews as moneylenders" cliche that impressed the susceptible Ford best of all. Growing up on a hardscrabble farm after the Civil War, he had heard plenty of rhetoric about the moguls back east making it so hard for the working man to make ends meet. All his life Ford distrusted banks. Ford Motor Company was more cash-rich than any other American corporation. The Great War was the tipping-point, driving its CEO tp publish The Dearborn Independent, a journal that began as an innocuous country newspaper and evolved by 1921 into the foremost antisemitic gossip-sheet in the land. More and more, especially with the rise of GM, Ford needed a scapegoat as his own company tried to navigate the choppy seas of competition in a rapidly-expanding industry.

Finally, after being sued for defamation by the brave California labor organizer-rabbi-attorney Aaron Sapiro in the summer of 1927, Ford apologized for his sins on the front page of every Hearst paper -- as well as the Jewish Daily Forward on the Lower East Side of NYC.

I've had half a dozen years to reflect upon the stain on Ford's psyche, during which time, as we all have seen, his eponymous company has gone through very tough circumstances. As I stressed in my book, the sins of the founder do not carry through to Ford's egalitarian, "green" culture in the present day. But history has a way of reiterating itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. Look at the fracas that erupted when he announced his presidential candidacy at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn last February.

And now, with the publication this weekend of my essay on Henry Ford and the Jews in the huge new Encyclopedia of American Jewish History (ABC-CLIO) it seems as if the weight of time will still not be lifted from Henry Ford's unfortunate, misguided shoulders.

Home sweet home, except when it isn't

On my way to work, once I hit Bloomfield Avenue, I like to take the scenic route to Montclair State University (where I teach American History; more of that once school starts in six weeks) heading northeast on Upper Mountain all the way over to Normal Avenue.

It's the early morning and so I listen to the BBC World Service turned down rather low as befits the English accent of the news announcer. Under a dappled green canopy, I speed by noble, prepossessing mansions on both sides. My attention is inexorably drawn to the houses on my left -- or what's left of them.

The road is more construction zone than residential -- one house has a 30-foot high pyramid of topsoil in front; another one is surrounded by piles and piles of slate and paving stones; another one looks as if it has been entirely gutted, so all that's visible is a shell of outer walls, within which I discern shadowy depths of nothingness -- rooms of the future yet unborn; the next one has no lawn because the grass is flayed up and away like a superfluous extra layer of skin; the next one there's a curved, ragged-edged gouge, ascending toward the main entrance, a raw, brown gouge which will eventually be transformed a new and better driveway; the next one is surrounded by scaffolding so I cannot even guess what is planned.

Passing these ripped-up, torn-up, inside-out sites in never-ending progress, I am distressed to find I've been shaking my head and thinking negative thoughts, such as "What is with these people -- can't they be satisfied with their house the way it is?" and "Do they have to take away the entire insides? Can't they leave anything the same?" and, most crankily, "I guess when you have that much cash you need to do something with it."

Then it dawns upon me that I should not be so quick to take the uncharitable approach to this phenomenon, blaming it so expediently upon blatant consumerism. No. I'll equivocate!

How does this sound: There are two kinds of people in the (suburban) homeowners' world: Visionaries and Domestics.

Short of tearing the existing house down and starting entirely from scratch, Visionaries see their new home as a tabula rasa that has to possess certain elements unknown to Victorians, such as master baths and swimming pools and family rooms.

Whereas the Domestics settle in, nice and cozy, then adapt modestly, incrementally, to changing conditions as they come along in their lives, building from within, content to leave well enough alone because, after all, well enough is good enough...for now.

Summer reading...but many aren't -- read this title aloud for full effect

You will shortly discover why I needed to get this blog posted before the Harry Potter release.

And one important point before I begin: this is not a cranky 'screed' - just an observation based upon a quiet, informal survey I've been conducting so far this summer on a nice, moderately-crowded but never too congested, typical (un-named) beach Down The Shore where I go -- sometimes with my wife, sometimes alone -- for R&R day-trips and a fish sandwich and large lemonade. Actually I am heading down there this morning as soon as I finish this blog. The clouds are lifting and so is the humidity....

As a published author, I hereby confess that to preserve my self-respect, I long ago stopped looking around me on subway cars, buses and NJ Transit commuter trips to see if anybody was actually reading one of my books. However, as a teacher of literature and lifelong laborer in the nonprofit national literacy community, I'm always interested to see what books people are reading in general, especially lately, with all the moaning and groaning about the decline of print.

This summer, at the beach, peering out from behind my dark glasses as unobtrusively as possible, I've noticed a disconcerting trend. From a demographic/age-level point of view, it goes like this. [NOTE: (1) Kids are exempt from this survey. They are building sand castles, looking for shells, running back and forth, nagging their parents for snacks -- doing all of the things kids are supposed to do at the beach. Kids, go ahead, have fun!]

(2) Teenagers are surfing, hanging out in large groups, playing cards, listening to iPods, flirting, eating and drinking, smoking. A few -- very few -- girls are flipping through magazines like People, US, or Glamour. Many are simply laying out in the sun or staring into space doing nothing in particular except for talking on their cell-phones every couple of minutes, checking messages, and texting.

(3) Young parents and grandparents are incessantly preoccupied with item (1) above, including taking care of babies.

(4) Middle-aged people -- I use this term in the most generous sense so as to include myself -- are applying sunscreen to each others' backs, adjusting umbrellas as the sun moves in its inexorable path across the heavens, sleeping, flipping through the occasional magazine such as People, US, and Glamour -- or Money or Business Week -- doing crossword puzzles and calling out questions about definitions with six or ten letters to those in their immediate vicinity, and Sudoku-ing with the most intense expressions on their faces.

Maybe -- I repeat, maybe! -- a mere scattering of members of category (4) are reading Richard North Patterson or John Grisham or Danielle Steele. Let's say half a dozen people in a one-hundred yard stretch of sand.

Conclusion: According to my informal but conscientious survey, very, very few people on the beach this summer are actually reading a paperback book. Forget hardcover books. I have seen maybe one or two. And forget nonfiction, totally.

Summary: Here comes the hard part. On the one hand, I realize how stressful life is nowadays, as always, and I am the last person to condemn anyone for wanting to relax and be lulled by the surge of the ocean. On the other hand, I always thought that summer was supposed to be the one part of the year when we set aside time to pick up a nice, big, hefty narrative tale and lose ourselves in the special pleasures that come with an extended immersion in crafted words and a great plot; or go back to some of those classics we might have missed or disliked in college or high school; or even pick up on one of Oprah's excellent suggestions, which have been quite literary in recent years.

Harry Potter will be here before you know it, and the first printing is 12 million copies. OK, but then what? What about the more than 150,000 other titles that were published in this country during the past year? Where are they?

Like I said, I am not complaining. But I am worried.

Paris Hilton: The Transcendentalist?

Dear Readers, please don't get me wrong.

The headline is not a crass, attention-grabbing strategy for my inaugural blog at NJVoices. I promise you that as the weeks and months unfold I will turn my intellectual energies to more compelling issues.

But this time I cannot help myself.

Here's what happened. Late the other night I realized with a start that we had run out of cat food, so I dashed out for an emergency purchase, and was minding my own business, waiting in the checkout line at Pathmark (now there's a valid New Jersey connection!), nonchalantly flipping through the July 9th issue of People magazine, when lo and behold, in the upper right hand corner of page 64, there was a small photograph of a fanned-out sheaf of pages from Paris Hilton's Prison Journal.

Her neatly-formed, rounded penmanship caught my eye. Being a lifelong scholar of American literature, I drew the magazine closer to my face, squinting, in an attempt to read what Paris had written, and - much to my surprise - realized that her very first reference was to one of the all-time defining giants of our culture, the adamant and principled nineteenth-century erstwhile minister, philosopher-poet, by turns recluse and intinerant lecturer himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-1882].

"Emerson once wrote," she noted, "the meaning of success being 'to laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children...'"

I added the magazine to my shopping bag and as soon as I returned home, scrutinized the nine lines more closely, then clicked on the Emerson online concordance to track down the origin and context of the citation.

There was none. "Success" seemed to be an aphoristic attribution that had stuck to RWE for decades.

Perhaps many of you have come across the passage in greeting cards, on posters and refrigerator magnets. Emerson - or whoever it really is - goes on to talk sensibly if floridly about "the appreciation of honest critics" and the fortitude to "endure the betrayal of friends." He applauds the ability "to find the best in others" and "leave the world a little better." He advocates the joy that comes when you "know that one other life has breathed" because of your actions.

"I decided I wanted to make the best of a bad situation," Hilton said. "So I just wrote about my feelings" on "jail-issued paper."

I set aside for a moment questions of authenticity (or lack of same) of the journal, suspicion of ulterior motive (book contract in the revolutionary tradition of Che Guevara or Antonio Negri?), the irrepressible urge to cynicism. I wondered, if he still walked among us - over six feet tall, black-clad, unsmiling and craggy - what Emerson would have thought about finding his name invoked in a glossy weekly by the paradigmatic personification of celebrity in our day.

I'd like to think that, to set the record straight, Emerson would have gently recommended to young Paris that she read his landmark essay, Self-Reliance [1841], in particular the simple advice at the beginning and the end: "Ne te quaesiveris extra...Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."