Author Archives: keeneshort

About keeneshort

My name is Keene Short. I am currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at the University of Idaho in Moscow, ID. Previously, I received a Master's in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and two BA degrees in History and English at Northern Arizona University. I write, read, edit, and practice photography. My skills vary widely, and there is little that does not interest me.

Into the Frank Church Wilderness

In a few days, I will drive south of Moscow to McCall,  hop on a bush plane at a nearby airstrip, and fly into the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. There, I will spend a week writing in a cabin, in what is arguably the last stretch of land in the lower 48 that still counts as true wilderness. The cabin is connected to the Taylor Ranch research station, affiliated with the University of Idaho. For one free week, I will write, read, and reflect, all in a world without phone service and effectively no internet access. When I return to Moscow, it will be the first day of autumn, but the seasons are already rapidly turning.

This is my first writing fellowship, ever, and I’m lucky enough to have a program that sponsors such a fellowship. It will probably be my last writing fellowship, ever. I intend to make the most of it.

I won’t be completely alone. Some UI students spend a semester at the research station, and an ecocriticism professor (one who led the movement in its early days) will be there for part of the week. But I will have plenty of time to myself, to my thoughts, and hopefully to my writing, which is good, because I have had almost no time to write so far this semester.

I’m told the bears will be preparing for the winter, not hibernating (they don’t hibernate, as loyal readers will remember from an earlier post). A fellow nonfiction writer in the program who is familiar with the wilderness tells me that the area mostly has black bears, who will be filling up with wild berries (as will I).

This isn’t a vacation, but a writing opportunity. I need a direction for my thesis; I have essays to write, ideas to explore, maybe even a poem lurking somewhere. I will not be preparing for winter like the bears, but instead will be preparing for a practice thesis defense two weeks after I return (which, of course, I accidentally scheduled on my advisor’s birthday with my usual terrible timing). I’ll have a week free of teaching, classes, and other obligations. So I intend to make the most of it.

-jk

 

On Starting Yet Another Daybook Again

DaybookI’ve never been good at keeping journals. I’ve started many, but I leave them behind soon after starting them. I’ve tried keeping traditional journals or more work-related daybooks, and once I even tried keeping a dream journal, which was redundant because most of my dreams involved spiders or missing a deadline or sometimes missing a deadline given to me by the spiders.

I know it’s a good habit, not just for writers but for anyone with too many thoughts and too many tasks. It can be therapeutic, and a few times even was. But I’ve never managed to keep a journal for more than a few weeks, despite being a creature of habit. Last winter, I woke up at 6 every morning and exercised for half an hour, and ate the same meal every night for dinner (a can of beans with salsa and cheese). I’m good at regimentation, except when it comes to writing.

I don’t count this blog as a daybook, either, because it’s the opposite of habitual. I post inconsistently, and I have no specific topic. Last year I wrote twelve posts about the Russian Revolution between attempts at satire and wannabe McSweeney’s rants. This year I’m writing twelve posts about American history between joke recipes for smoothies and self-referential metablog posts. This blog is more like an intellectual junk drawer where everything that isn’t easily categorized finds itself one way or another.

Today, I started another daybook. I don’t know if I’ll see it through to the end of the year, but I want to write at least a paragraph every day. Maybe posting about it here will keep me in check; maybe the theme (observations about Moscow from September to May) will make it easier to write consistently. Lately, I’ve wanted to write about this weird place I now live. There’s a lot of take in, even for such a small town. Or maybe because it’s such a small town, there’s a lot to take in, just around the corners, subtle but always there.

My first entry in the daybook was about Farmers Market potatoes. Tomorrow, I hope something just as engaging will fall into my life.

-jk

Locating Gabriel Over the White House

Gabriel Over the White House 2

“The soldiers threw tear gas at them and vomiting gas. It was one assignment they reluctantly took on. They were younger than the marchers. It was like sons attacking their fathers. . . MacArthur was looked upon as a hero. And so the bonus marchers straggled back to the various places they came from. And without their bonus.” -Jim Sheridan in Hard Times, by Studs Terkel


Less than a month after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, MGM released one of the first films to directly confront the Great Depression: Gabriel Over the White House. A fictional president named Judd Hammond, played by Walter Huston, is revealed to be a self-absorbed, party-loyal moron who ignores the protests of impoverished WWI veterans marching on Baltimore demanding fair compensation for their service, a direct reference to the historic Bonus March of 1932.

Spoiler alert: the film gets weirder. Hammond races his car, crashes, and is temporarily comatose. When he wakes up, he becomes possessed by the Angel Gabriel. Now under spiritual control, Hammond confronts the marchers, promising to create for them an “army of construction” to guarantee employment.

Facing impeachment from congress, he declares martial law and embraces accusations of dictatorship, proclaiming that he believes “in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy,” that his will be “a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.” Hammond then creates a Federal Police to round up and publicly execute Prohibition-era bootleggers, many of whom are portrayed as immigrants. The film’s climax is an international summit held at sea, where Hammond annihilates empty warships using an ultra-powerful Naval Air Force bomb, to force the international community into a permanent peace, warning that “the next war will depopulate the Earth [with] invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, [and] annihilating death-rays.” Terrified, the international community agrees to their universal disarmament.

Gabriel Over the White House portrays a Washington insider who abolishes the law to solve several national crises, the logical antithesis of a later Depression-era film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a Washington outsider masters the law to solve a small local problem. Ideologically, these films are worlds apart, but they both praise the same three American leaders: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

The film’s backstory is worth revisiting. After being fired from Paramount, producer Walter Wanger began working for MGM to make ends meet. When Wanger secured the rights to the story of Gabriel Over the White House, he pushed the film into production as quickly as possible on a budget of just over $200,000, “to avoid the scrutiny of [MGM manager] Louis B. Mayor, a dedicated Republican” (Carmichael 164). By February of that year, a month before FDR’s inauguration, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst began aggressively micromanaging the script’s content.

Hearst and Wanger had ties dating to 1917, and after he began working for MGM, Hearst offered him financial support. Hearst, who disliked FDR but supported his running mate John Garner, was unusually interested in the film. He “ordered his own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to take over production,” and it is “believed that Hearst himself wrote some of the speeches for President Hammond” (Shindler 112).

Several MGM managers took issue with the script’s political nature. Some worried that its portrayal of Congress as incompetent would motivate Congress to censor Hollywood in retaliation, while others decried its positive portrayal of dictatorship. The film seemed to communicate directly to FDR that he should solve the Depression by becoming a fascist: Hearst was a casual admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler, but in early 1933, such admiration was quite common. Both dictators would eventually be Time‘s Person of the Year.

By March, 1933, Mussolini had been in power eleven years, Stalin roughly eight, and Hitler barely a month. There were not yet wars, purges, or camps. Totalitarianism to many looked like a safe, if drastic, solution, and many Americans wanted a similarly authoritative leader to take charge and solve the economic crisis, regardless of ideology. The film is more a response to Hoover’s failings than FDR’s potential, and arguably its most important scene is its version of the Bonus March.

In the film, the president hears the pleas of protestors marching on Baltimore and responds by creating a federal jobs program. In 1932, the real Bonus Army marched on Washington and were met with a brigade of cavalry and tanks led by Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. At least one marcher died as a result. What little action Hoover took was one injustice on top of a dozen other injustices during the early years of the Depression. Ironically, Hoover’s response would become a defining tactic of totalitarian regimes: military action against civilian protest.

The most compelling scene is the one that corrects this recent injustice by presenting a fantasy of what Hoover should have done, which accounts for the film’s success and FDR’s own warm reception to it. We know that FDR planned to take critical economic action long before taking office. He stated in his inaugural address that Americans should treat the Depression “as we would treat the emergency of a war.” But FDR also took the time to write Hearst to say that he thought the film was “an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help” (Carmichael 174).

FDR admired Hammond’s decisive rhetoric, though it’s impossible to discern how much Gabriel Over the White House, and by extension Hearst, influenced his policies. Maybe it inspired his Works Progress Administration or his later war policies, or maybe it had no influence whatsoever.

There is at least one key difference between FDR and Hammond. While declaring martial law, Hammond cites Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; in his inaugural address, FDR makes no reference to any of these presidents. Hammond’s dictatorship is self-consciously all-American.

As president, Washington led the militias of several states to stop a tax protest in rural Pennsylvania called the Whiskey Rebellion, making him the only sitting president to lead troops into battle (against tax protestors, no less). Jefferson attempted to use the navy to force peace with Barbary Coast pirates, and later invoked executive privilege when he refused to hand over subpoenaed documents to the Supreme Court during the investigation of his own Vice President for treason. During the Civil War, Lincoln pushed a de facto martial law through congress and suspended Habeas corpus for Confederate soldiers. The difference with Hammond is that he does all of these things simultaneously.

The underlying assertion of Gabriel Over the White House is that an American totalitarian does not need to import an ideological foundation from abroad. The seeds are already sown in a long chain of temporary American totalitarianisms in which presidents responded to crises with extralegal overreach. Hammond’s presidency is a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled together, home-grown authoritarianism. An American totalitarian will not look like Mussolini, Stalin, or Hitler, but will instead look just like Hammond: very American, and very familiar.


Carmichael, Deborah. “Gabriel Over the White House (1933).” Hollywood’s White House, ed. Peter C. Rollins & John E. O’Connor. University of Kentucky Press, 2003, pp. 159-179.

Gabriel Over the White House. Directed by Gregory La Cava, MGM, 1933.

Shindler, Colin. Hollywood in Crisis. Routledge, 1996.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times. Pantheon Books, 1986.

 

 

Essay Published in Split Lip Magazine

highway 43 2

I’m pleased to announce that I have an essay in the August issue of Split Lip Magazine. It’s titled “Faking It,” and it’s a creative nonfiction essay about the time I sold my soul to the devil. It might be called excessively creative nonfiction.

Feel free to read it, but also check out the other work this month and in the archives. Split Lip publishes a small handful of writers each month, as opposed to many other journals who feature a lot of writers two or three times a year.

For me, this is an honor, and also a good way to kick off the semester on the first day back to work for TA training.

-jk

Will Write for Contest Fee Waivers

Cash and BooksRecently, I had a short story published in issue 20 of Prism Review, titled “The Next Best Thing.” This is good news, of course, and I’m honored to be featured in their journal. In addition to the contributor copy I received in the mail, the journal also offered monetary compensation. This was the first time in my life I have been paid for my writing. Even more exciting is that I have an essay debuting soon in an online journal that also pays its contributors. Twice this year, so far at least, I can say I’m a paid writer.

I haven’t done the math on this, but I know that what I’m been paid in writing this year will not meet or exceed what I’ve paid in reading and contest fees. I know these fees are important for literary journals to survive, and now that I’m volunteering for a literary journal in Idaho, I know how crucial these funds are. It’s standard to pay two or three dollars to submit to a journal online. In a way, it’s like gambling.

In an ideal world, the written word would be more collectively valued and publicly funded, and authors would be paid for their work, and ideally this would include journalists, reporters, and screenwriters. But this isn’t an ideal world. Instead, art is publicly devalued, journalists are called the enemy of the people, and production companies easily get away with underpaying their screenwriters.

To be clear, I didn’t go into writing for the money. If I wanted to be rich, I’d go into punditry or the gun lobby where writing fiction is valued. I’m not the kind of person who cares about, or really believes in, worshiping the bottom line or breaking even. I’m not struggling to make ends meet, but I’m still writing–and submitting–on a budget. I have to decide when to gamble and when to withhold a reading fee, and for many other writers, budgetary decisions are much more pressing.

The last thing writers and publishers need right now is to be divided over funding. Both of these things are true: publishers need to survive, and writers deserve to be paid. This is a balancing act, but it doesn’t need to be a competition. I hope I can more easily do what I can to get my writing into the world, and until then, I’ll happily balance reading fees and writing on a budget.

-jk

 

Another Summer, Another Syllabus

WorkingThis fall will be my third year teaching first-year composition at the college level, and my fifth time drafting my syllabus from scratch. Some instructors keep a syllabus, but so far, I’ve opted to rebuild and try something new. Fifth time’s the charm, or maybe not.

Each time I teach an introductory writing class, I have made significant changes to the syllabus, the assignments, the readings. I change the amount of points that participation is worth, because I am still redefining what qualifies as sufficient participation. Should I have more shorter assignments or just a few really long essays? How can I get students to read what is required? I’ve never believed in reading quizzes, but this year I may try them out.

I am returning to some of the standard readings I’ve used from my first semester in Nebraska, way back in Fall, 2016, during simpler, less stupid times. I will still assign Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” But I’m also adding new readings, like Tiffany Midge’s essay “Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s” and Joy Castro’s essays “Grip” and “Getting Grip.”

Every semester is a tri-weekly exercise in trial and error, and to a degree I regret doing this to my students. I have been in classes where professors try new things and talked excitedly about their brand new syllabus, and now, after three years on the other side of the classroom, I wonder if I shouldn’t just repeat what is familiar, but I know that repeating even the most familiar trials will still result in plenty of errors. Every class is different, and within those classes are unpredictable factors.

Students might hate what I assign. They might not. Conversely, I might hate teaching something they end up loving. It’s rare that we’re all in agreement. The question is how can I teach them this lesson–that speakers struggle to connect with their audiences in the most ideal circumstances–without simply telling them it’s the case. Teaching is like writing in that showing is preferred over telling, but just like writing too, honesty is the best policy.

So, this year, I will write at the top of my syllabus “Please anticipate technical difficulties.” Extra credit to students who pay enough attention to notice it.

-jk

The Decade of Jekyll and Hyde

Department of Commerce and Labor Seal

Seal of the Department of Commerce and Labor, 1903-1913.

“True, this was the ‘Progressive Period,’ the start of the Age of Reform; but it was a reluctant reform, aimed at quieting the popular risings, not making fundamental changes.” -Howard Zinn, 1995.


In January of 1906, a man named Albert Horsley, known by his pseudonym Harry Orchard, was placed on death row for the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. Horsley had planted a bomb in Caldwell, Idaho, that killed the former governor, and it was in the Caldwell prison where he awaited his trial. As governor, Steunenberg had repressed the 1899 Coeur d’Alene miners’ strike, and authorities believed his motive was revenge on behalf of labor.

However, an infamous Pinkerton detective named James McParland had Horsley moved to a prison in Boise with better conditions. Beginning January 22, McParland sat down with Horsley in private meetings, and by February 1, Horsley confessed to the assassination and then accused three of the nation’s most prominent labor leaders of orchestrating the assassination and giving him the orders. He named the “inner circle” of the Western Federation of Miners: Charles Moyer, William Haywood, and George Pettibone, the president, secretary-treasurer, and advisor respectively. Haywood had also been a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Though later acquitted, these three men were initially arrested and faced a highly publicized trial, through which Horsley would receive life in prison. The trial became so sensationalized that it sparked a minor scandal for President Theodore Roosevelt when a newspaper article in 1907 quoted Roosevelt in a private letter as referring to Haywood and Moyer as “undesirable citizens.”

The problem for Roosevelt was that he had spent much of his administration trying to bring labor and business together, and this quote publicly contradicted his commitment to both. Though Roosevelt later clarified that he did not mean they were guilty, his condemnation of two labor leaders on trial for a high-profile political assassination (after Roosevelt himself had become president following a similar political assassination, that of President McKinley) exposed the fault lines in his own efforts to support workers and capitalists alike.

A centerpiece of those efforts was the Department of Commerce and Labor, which Roosevelt created in 1903 as a response to growing unrest between workers and industrial capitalists at the turn of the century. During the 1890s, Howard Zinn notes there were “about a thousand strikes a year” (Zinn 331), and the strike that Steunenberg crushed was just one example of workers responding to brutal conditions and meager compensation. Lewis Gould observes that “precise figures for industrial accidents did not appear until the end of Roosevelt’s presidency, but estimates put work-related deaths at twenty thousand per year, and at least five hundred thousand other workers were injured or maimed” (Gould 35). Roosevelt’s solution, in addition to some trust-busting, was to create the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Though Roosevelt was far more willing to support workers than his predecessor, his policies were intended to be a centrist balancing act between labor and capital, a good faith attempt to see both sides of an inherently unequal battle.

The new department satisfied almost no one. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that congress opposed the department’s Bureau of Corporations, which would have “substantial powers to investigate the internal operations of corporations engaged in interstate commerce” and would even have “authority to compel testimony, and to subpoena books, papers, and reports” of corporations (Goodwin 344). As such, businesses also adamantly opposed the Department for its power to investigate, for example, the conditions that led to the estimated twenty-thousand work-related deaths that took place in 1901.

But the Department was unpopular among several labor leaders as well. The American Federation of Labor advocated a separate Department of Labor to support workers without having to make any concessions to industrialists. The treasury-secretary of the AFL at the time, Frank Morrison, went so far as to say that “a man would have to be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to meet the requirements of a Department of Commerce and Labor.”

But there was another factor motivating their opposition. Numerous unions wanted to restrict immigration because they saw it as a threat to their security. The Secretary of Commerce and Labor, Oscar Straus, favored immigration (Grossman 9), and industrialists preferred to have migrant labor because it was cheaper and, as is the case today, migrant workers often face difficulty joining unions whose paperwork is entirely in English. Many union leaders believed that an independent Department of Labor would be instrumental in limiting immigration.

A prime example was Samuel Gompers, then president of the AFL. Gompers was a talented organizer, but was openly hostile to Chinese immigrants in particular. Decades earlier, he had actively supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and in 1902, he “reported to the [AFL], on the eve of the exclusion law’s expiration, that the Chinese were entirely at variance with Americans” (Mandel 187). Gompers did not hide his racism, and when the Department of Commerce and Labor was created, his opposition to it stemmed largely from his desire to lobby for similar exclusion laws through a department that would cater exclusively to groups like the AFL.

Gompers was not an outlier, but he was also not representative of the whole. Discussion of labor and capital inaccurately treat labor as a unified front in the early 1900s. Today, many on the left express nostalgia for the labor movement of the turn-of-the-century, and this misses a crucial point: labor was certainly growing in strength, but it was far from unified. As Zinn puts it, the Progressive era under Roosevelt and Taft “was a time of public investigations aimed at soothing protest” (Zinn 341). Strikes were many and localized, and national organizations like the AFL of Gompers, the WFM of Moyers, and the IWW of Haywood sought to organize, protect, and accentuate these local protests with their own individual goals in mind. Strikers carried many nineteenth century hostilities from the Populist Party and the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party, but many more strikers were also part of the left-leaning IWW or the Socialist Party. Labor, then, was an unhelpful umbrella term for a broad spectrum of movements.

By 1907, when Haywood, Moyers, Pettibone, and Horsley were on trial, the tension between labor and capital had only grown, and grew more complex. Union membership increased and union leaders began running for office. The AFL “reached a membership of 1,676,000 by 1905” (Gould 35), and by 1906 “successfully backed six union members for congress” and fifteen more in 1910 (Grossman 10) in a wave that gave Democrats, who had begun courting unions with calls to create a separate Department of Labor, control of the House. By 1912, they had enough influence to push Taft to create two separate departments for labor and commerce, which he did on his last day in office, March 4, 1913, ending Roosevelt’s ten-year fusion of the two. The very next day, President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson, who “dropped out of school at the age of nine and then went to work for ten hours a day in a coal mine” (Grossman 11) as the first Secretary of Labor.

The tension between labor and commerce resulted in volatile shifts in the American political landscape in ways that have mostly been forgotten, overshadowed by the chaos of the First World War, which halted most of the progress of the Progressive era through efforts to crack down on unions and pacifists, like the Sedition Act of 1918.

The Department of Commerce and Labor demonstrated the limits of treating both labor and capital as equal in a system designed to favor capital. The trial of Haywood, Moyers, and Pettibone was a revelation, a unifying persecution narrative for that decade’s competing interests. After the trial, a small handful of labor leaders got what they wanted in dissolving Roosevelt’s initial department. But by siding with Wilson’s camp to dismantle the limited progress of Roosevelt, many labor leaders also sided with the man who would go on to dismantle what progress they had made on their own.


Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Bully Pulpit. Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Gould, Lewis. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Grossman, Johnathan. The Department of Labor. Praeger Publishers, inc., 1973.

Lukas, J. Anthony. Big Trouble. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Mandel, Bernard. Samuel Gompers: A Biography. Antioch Press, 1963.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.