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Here are titles of the 8 essays I’ve written and presented to date before the Chicago Literary Club, since joining in 2005. I will present a new essay related to the use of colors in the world of power and politics on this Election Eve, which I will then also post here. Those of you concerned about the risks of the Electoral College in this year’s elections might take a look at my essay, One Collage Too Many, cited below, for insights and ideas. All my essays are copyrighted.You can pull up the full text of each by searching for the title at the website of the club at http://www.chilit.org
French Fried – From Monticello to the Moon, October 31, 2005
Masai Mara Hood Ornament, March 12, 2007
Samuel Johnson and His ‘Clubbable’ Friends, January 21, 2008
One Collage Too Many, November 3, 2008
Breakfast with Mr. McDonald, October 26, 2009
Acceleration, November 8, 2010
All That Glitters…, November 21, 2011
Bozzy’s Last Lap, James Boswell, The Great Biographer – 1789-1795, April 23, 2012
I’m reminded by the following entry in The Writer’s Almanac that today is the 271st birthday of the famous scribe and biographer. Read much more about him and his contemporaries in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends’ (www.chilit.org).
“It’s the birthday of the biographer James Boswell (books by this author), born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family was descended from minor royalty, and they had occupied the same more than two hundred years. Boswell’s father was a judge who insisted that his son study law. So James Boswell passed his bar exams in Scotland, but he didn’t really like law and he didn’t really like Scotland. Boswell loved gossip, drinking, and traveling, and he wanted to be in London, to be in the company of the rich and famous. He also wanted to be known as a great lover, so he bragged constantly about his love life.
“James Boswell was a good writer with an incredible memory, and he started keeping a journal as a teenager, and he kept it for the rest of his life, filled with reflections and anecdotes about the famous people he befriended—Voltaire, Rousseau, Oliver Goldsmith, John Wilkes. Most of all he wrote about his friend Samuel Johnson. When Boswell was just 22 years old, he met Johnson, who was his idol, in the back of a bookshop. Johnson was 53, and he gave the young Boswell a hard time when he met him, but Boswell went back to visit him anyway and they soon became good friends. Over the next 20 years, Boswell followed Johnson around, and he always had paper and took notes constantly. Johnson was often frustrated with Boswell, and Boswell could be critical of Johnson, but they still liked to spend time together, and they traveled together through Scotland and the Hebrides.
“After Johnson’s death, Boswell spent years writing a biography of his friend. He used letters, interviews, as well as his own diary, of which he said, “A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion.” Finally, in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson was published, and people loved it. There had never been a biography like it before. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, Boswell filled his book with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions, and overall it was fun to read, and he made Johnson sound like a real person who wasn’t totally perfect. It’s still considered one of the greatest biographies ever written, and it’s a big part of the reason why Samuel Johnson is still so famous today.”
Hodge, Samuel Johnson’s beloved cat, surveys London’s Gough Square, looking toward the home of his master, who would go to the market to buy oysters for him. Johnson, greatest wit of 18th century London, wrote the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language in this now restored house, which we visited a couple years ago when researching “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends” for my essay presented to the Chicago Literary Club (www.chilit.org).
It’s the birthday of Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield, England (1709). When he was 54 years old, he was in the back parlor of his friend Tom Davies’ bookshop in London, and he was introduced to a 23-year-old Scotsman named James Boswell, who had been trying to meet Johnson for quite a while. Johnson was intensely suspicious of Scottish people, and found Boswell annoying. But eventually they became good friends.
For years, Boswell kept notes on Johnson’s mannerisms, habits, decisions, thoughts, appearance, and everything about his life. In the meantime, Samuel Johnson had a great career. He wrote essays and sketches for magazines, poems, and biographies. And then a group of publishers asked him to create a definitive dictionary of the English language, and he accepted the challenge. The French equivalent, compiled by the AcadémieFrançaise, was slotted to take 40 years and was being created by 40 scholars. The French took six years just to work on the letter “G.” In contrast, Johnson announced that he could single-handedly do the entire project in three years.
He didn’t manage it quite that fast — it took him seven years — and he did have six mechanical assistants. But it was still a huge undertaking. Published in 1775, it had more than 42,000 entries.
Johnson’s dictionary made him famous, and it is his most long-lasting achievement. But he is best remembered not for anything he wrote, but for the biography that Boswell wrote about him. Published after its subject’s death, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is considered the precursor to modern biographies because it was the first to truly describe its subject as a whole person, not just a catalog of achievements and events.
To learn more about Johnson, read my essay, “Samuel Johnson and His Clubbable Friends.” Go to chilit.org, click on “Roll of Members,” click on “E,” then go to my name, Charles Ebeling, and click on title of essay.
Without the Electoral College, there’d be no such thing as red and blue states. It is an odd collage of a college, grown directly out of a rushed and convoluted 3-month, 18th century political quest, at the very end of the Constitutional Convention, for a middle ground among the founding fathers. The presidential electoral process represents a compromised straddling and intermingling of the principles of popular democracy and state’s rights federalism, along with those of a republican (with a little “r”) approach to government. Yet our system remains unique in the (small “d”) democratic world.
My premise tonight, on the eve of another presidential election, is that in these times, we’ve seen one electoral collage too many. This anachronism of the Constitution receives failing marks, in a modern era when the electorate has easy access to full disclosure of fact and opinion regarding all the candidates via 24/7 media coverage and the internet. The presidency’s accountability is not just to the states, but clearly to the American people at large.
We’ve come a long way from the time Convention delegate George Mason said, “The extent of the country renders it impossible that the people can have a requisite capacity to judge.”
By 1750, in Samuel Johnson’s era, the population of London had reached 650,000, more or less. It had been growing at a steady rate since 1500, and by 1650 had outstripped Paris and Naples, and by 1750 had overtaken Constantinople, Peking and Cairo. One in six of the population of England had been drawn to London at some time in their lives. As Johnson wrote, “It is not the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human inhabitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London exists.” On another occasion, he uttered the enigmatic line, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
For the privileged of mid-18th century London, those steeped in the professions and arts, “clubbing together” had become a way of life. Johnson enjoyed the club life as a way to take his mind off his dictionary-in-the-making and “enjoy literary conversation, and amuse his evening hours.” His biographer Boswell went to a club that Benjamin Franklin belonged to, at St. Paul’s coffee-house, every other Thursday. “Wine and punch upon the table, some of us smoke a pipe…at nine there is a side-board with Welch rabbits and apple-puffs, porter and beer. Our reckoning is about eighteen pence a head.”
The most famous of the periodic gatherings favored by Johnson, Boswell and their friends came to be known as the Literary Club, and here a few similarities with our own club of the 21st century begin. For many years they met to talk over dinner and drinks at an agreeable inn, on Monday evenings at 7pm, much as we do today.
While there were many differences between the membership and activities of London’s original club and today’s Chicago Literary Club, there is also a lineage that seems to me comprehensible, and almost tactile, if not exactly direct. So, I’d like to take you back nearly 250 years to meet Dr. Johnson and some of the “clubbable” personages of his cozy assembly, early on simply called The Club. We’ll look in on their backgrounds, their foibles, their personalities and relationships. We’ll even sit in on a meeting of their club.
Our silent interlocutor tonight is probably today the best-known of Johnson’s fellow club members, and that is James Boswell, among the most candid and prolific diarists and biographers of all time.
The rest of the essay can be fond at http://www.chilit.org
I first met Dick in 1985, the year after Ray Kroc had died, and I would be his most frequent contact, and become his friend, at the business he’d given his name to, until his own death some 13 years later. There was a third of a century between our ages. I’d lost my own grandfather, himself a proud entrepreneurial retailer, a few years before. In some ways for me, as our relationship grew, Dick McDonald began to take my grandfather’s place.
The night before our high profile breakfast, my wife Vicki and I took Dick and Dot out for dinner at the elegant Club International at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. Ron and Pat Miesler joined us. Ron was a veteran McDonald’s vice president who had previously taken a film crew out to Bedford to record Dick’s reminiscences for posterity, as he had once done with Ray Kroc in his later years. That film is preserved in McDonald’s Golden Archives in Elk Grove, Illinois.
I’d told the maître de at the club who our special guest was to be, and after dinner the excited chef brought out a golden frosted cake with McDonald’s arches emblazoned on top. Dick was touched and clapped his hands in delight. He never expected to be treated so specially. It was only when one of his grandchildren or one of his correspondents prodded him about his anonymity that his New England pride would seep through. Dick, like many of his counterparts in the restaurant industry, enjoyed fine dining, and almost always ordered brandy Alexander’s for himself and Dot before dinner. We were to enjoy many excellent restaurants together, from coast to coast, as we traveled to events honoring him in the years ahead.
The breakfast the next day went swimmingly. On stage, Dick and I enjoyed our Egg McMuffins and coffee, as did those in the audience. I introduced him as one of the best conceivable friends and supporters that McDonald’s people could possibly have, as the audience settled down to some breakfast shop talk with the original Mr. McDonald. A brief video followed that included a new McDonald’s Founder’s Day TV commercial we’d produced specially to position the McDonald’s brother’s pioneering role in the so-called fast food industry and their creation and early success opening the first McDonald’s restaurant, along with the role of Ray Kroc in subsequently creating and building the worldwide restaurant company. Dick then earnestly answered my questions and those of audience members, giving everyone a new first-hand perspective on their roots. I later wrote him, saying “I’m glad that during your visit you were able to meet so many of the people here in “McDonaldland” who care about you – our people are uplifted by your positive personality and your optimistic point of view.”
Things hadn’t always been so rosy between Dick McDonald and the company, and the future road would also contain some big bumps. The trouble started almost from the beginning…
I’ve finally created a blog, after some years of driving my friends and contacts crazy with emails espousing my views on public relations, the news media, the archaic Electoral College, conservation, travel, all things McDonald’s, local and national politics and policy, and anything else that attracts my attention, however briefly.
The Apple Pressings blog name derives from where I most often write, our Wisconsin retreat that Vicki and I call Applewood Lodge, mostly because the front half of our property is a very antique random apple orchard, and the back part is an even more antique oak forest. In good years, we drag out the wooden apple press I assembled several years ago, and make a fine cider from the varied apple types from more than 200 mature trees. Those pressings, like the ones hopefully to come in this blog, result in a rich blend of flavors that can be very satisfying. Enjoy this written cider!
For openers, if you want to see my copyrighted essays on topics ranging from a historic appreciation of french fries, to issues of big game conservation and tourism in Kenya, to Samuel Johnson and his clubable friends of the first Literary Club in London, to the problem and solutions for the outdated Electoral College system for electing our presidents, to the reconciliation of Dick McDonald with the company he gave his name to, visit http://www.chilit.org, the website of the Chicago Literary Club, and click on my name under the “Roster of members” to download any you wish to peruse.