Amid a rapidly changing industrialized society, America at the turn of the twentieth century experienced a fundamental shift away from her founding principles. To combat greed, corruption, and poverty, some reformers, calling themselves progressives, advocated unprecedented alterations to America’s traditional view of man, natural rights, and limited government. The presidency of Calvin Coolidge is sandwiched between the ideological roots of progressivism, as outlined by predecessors such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and what many would view as its practical implementation in the form of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
President Coolidge, though often trivialized and disparagingly referred to as the “Do-Nothing President” or “Silent Cal,” has recently been revisited and thoughtfully critiqued. Born in humble surroundings on the fourth of July, 1872, Coolidge did not appear destined for greatness. Growing up in rural Vermont, however, Coolidge learned to value economy and individual responsibility, to respect human equality and adherence to law, and to find dignity in labor and meaning in service. These lessons fostered a life of character which emanated moral clarity, principled action, and meaningful rhetoric.
Although President Coolidge held 520 press conferences and delivered more speeches than any of his predecessors, Coolidge cultivated an aura of silence and nurtured a purposeful inactivity. When he spoke, Coolidge carefully articulated the need for an understanding and appreciation of those ideals, principles, and institutions upon which America was founded. Typical of that rhetoric is Coolidge’s Memorial Day Speech, 1923, The Destiny of America. Speaking as Vice President, just a little over two months before his abrupt inauguration as president, Coolidge emphasized the uniqueness of America, her founding upon individualism, economy, righteousness, and limited government. Subsequently, as president, Coolidge did more than carefully choose his words; he measured his actions. Coolidge’s firm belief in the Founders’ system of limited government and constitutional accountability forced him to maintain purposeful restraint.
For posterity, Coolidge’s self-conscious realization of the power of words heightens the meaning of what he said. Notably, Calvin Coolidge did not allow progress to repudiate principles. Amidst the wave of progressive ideology, his moral clarity and principled actions or inaction evince a consistency not often surpassed and transcendent of the day in which he served.
—Deborah Demirjian teaches history at the Lancaster Baptist School, Lancaster, California. Demirjian is a graduate of the Master of Arts in American History and Government at Ashland University. Her thesis, Calvin Coolidge: The Civic Educator, received the MAHG Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Thesis.
Teachers will have two opportunities to explore the work of writer Ernest Hemingway in the upcoming weeks. Professor Dan Monroe, who is the John C. Griswold Distinguished Professor of History at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, sees Hemingway not only as the most important American literary voice of the twentieth century but also as a window into an era of war and social upheaval. Monroe will offer both a Saturday webinar on selected short stories of Hemingway and a weeklong summer seminar covering these and longer works. The webinar, the last of this school year’s series of free online continuing education opportunities, will be offered Saturday, May 18. Webinars are not only excellent opportunities to explore topics of historical interest; they afford a taste of the text-driven, interactive experience of our Master of Arts in American History and Government program, taught partly online and partly in residence on the Ashland University campus. During the fourth on-campus session this summer, Monroe will offer a study of Hemingway as one of the newest of our program’s Great Texts courses. We asked Professor Monroe to chat with us about his interest in this iconic American author.
I find Hemingway endlessly fascinating both as literature and for his portrait of the first half of the 20th century. I have a minor in American literature. But as a historian, I believe I can offer a richer and deeper analysis of Hemingway’s fiction than that offered in many literature seminars; I can tease out the cultural and historical ethos reflected in Hemingway’s fiction. “Wine of Wyoming” offers a good example. The story describes a French couple who has immigrated to the US and moved to Wyoming, where they open a hotel and make wine. Prohibition comes along, and they are prevented from doing this anymore. The story illustrates the social and historical background at the end of the 1920s and the struggles immigrants faced in assimilating into a Puritanical cultural environment.
Two novels: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, plus selections from Hemingway’s short stories.
Five short stories are recommended reading: “Soldier’s Home,” “Big Two-Hearted River, Part 1,” “Wine of Wyoming,” “One Trip Across,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” If participants read these ahead of time, the webinar will be more productive, since we’ll be able to discuss them together.
There is an international conference on him every two years, and I try to go to as many as I can and present papers on the historical and cultural context of his work. I’ve published an article based on a presentation I made at a conference at Key West. As you know, in the literary field for the last 25 or 30 years, it’s all about deconstructing texts—finding implicit racism or sexism or some other “ism” in the writing. I think the historical context I can bring to Hemingway is more interesting and less tiresome to people.
A Farewell to Arms shows the post-World War I disillusionment with war. So many casualties came out of the war, yet there was no fundamental change in European borders, so it seems that nothing was achieved by the conflict. In the little-known short story, “Black Ass at the Crossroads,” Hemingway describes the carnage associated with an ambush set-up to kill German soldiers retreating to Aachen, Germany, in the closing months of World War II. It is a melancholy reflection on the awfulness of war, even amidst the triumphalism usually associated with that just war.
His work was subject to a mixed critical reception. Many found it wonderful and gripping, although there were a few—I think they were wrong—who found it too spare, like he had denuded the trees of leaves and clipped off the branches. There were also those who thought his subject matter stepped over the boundaries of propriety and the accepted mores, since he alludes to subjects like abortion and homosexuality and gives cryptic descriptions of sexual activity—subjects not treated in polite literature of the time.
Absolutely. If you look at Hemingway’s journalism in the 1920s, you will see a lot of his stylistic experimentation there. He is using simple declarative sentences, without a lot of adjectives and adverbs. He is actually doing what journalism should do, reporting rather than commenting. Occasionally, however, he cannot resist a comment. Hemingway was asked to interview Mussolini for The Toronto Star. He found Mussolini a kind of buffoon. He comments on what Mussolini was wearing, saying “It is hard to take seriously a man who wears a black shirt with white spats.” Mussolini was dressed like a clown—and yet by this time he was ruling Italy and would soon be dictator.
Hemingway does live an expatriate life, not only in Paris in the 1920s. I think he was always in search of evocative places. But also, like many writers and intellectuals, he liked to go off by himself—to the isolated island of Key West in the 1930s, which might as well have been a foreign country at that time, or to a home in the hills in Cuba in the 40s and 50s. I’ve been through his published letters, and I don’t find any distaste for the US; and, indeed, in some of his stories you see loving descriptions of the landscape of the American West or of Michigan. Hemingway was not like some expatriate writers—say, Ezra Pound—who chose life abroad because they hated the American political system and American culture.
If you talk to Europeans, you find that they view Hemingway as the archetypal American writer. They see A Farewell to Arms as a distinctly American reaction to Italy at the time of World War I.
Professor Monroe’s free Saturday Teacher Webinar will be held May 18th from 10 am to noon Eastern time. Register online today. The Summer Graduate Course, Great American Texts: Ernest Hemingway, will be held at Ashland University during the week of Sunday, July 14. Complete information about tuition and registration may be found online.
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