A bit of Christmas every day

Unpacking and cataloging books at the Josephy Library is a little bit like Christmas every day. I dig through boxes, looking for the most essential things to catalog (there are many boxes left to catalog, so someone has to prioritize!), schlep them to volunteer librarian Shannon Maslach at the bank, and she brings them back with neat little cards in them, or in nice folders that go in the new oak map case/file cabinet built for us by local cabinet maker Brian Oliver. 
James Michener WW II
This week it was a faded, torn covered copy of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Out of old library and bookstore days, I turned immediately to the copyright page, and sure enough it’s “New York. Macmillan, First Printing, 1947.” The book is in booksellers’ “fair” condition, I would say, but the on-line story is that a dust jacket in any shape at all is rare.
So the little treasure, with Alvin’s familiar signature on the first end-page, is probably worth hundreds of dollars. But my mind runs to the story from A Walk Toward Oregon about his working on a novel as WW II ends, then abandoning it and writing The Long and the Short and the Tall, the non-fiction book about his experiences in the Pacific. There is an inkling of why the fiction book was left half-done in Walk Toward Oregon—personal life had been disrupted by the War and his homecoming, but still, I never really talked with Alvin about it, or about Michener and Michener’s take on the War and the Pacific. More questions not asked.
Which reminds me that Alvin and Betty’s daughter Kathy (Katch) Josephy brought in a CD copy of Alvin’s recording of the landing on Guam. This was the landing that he recorded on a condom covered mike, tethered to his half-track by a 40 foot wire. Over 20 of the 32 men that waded ashore were hit before they got there. The recording played across the nation, and is acknowledged today as the only recording of a ship to shore landing by a participant. Alvin played parts of it for us at Fishtrap one time, and it was even then, over 50 years after the event, a deeply emotional experience for him. “Some of us felt guilty about coming home alive,” he said. 
Shannon cataloged it—and made a loaner copy. The text is also reproduced in The Long and the Short and the Tall.
There were other treasures as well this week, including two contemporary accounts of the Nez Perce War by correspondents sympathetic to the Indians. One of them, a signature from Galaxy Magazine, 1877, by one “F.L.M.,” has a note from P.D. on the inside of the front cover. The P.D. is, I’m sure, the antiquarian book dealer and expert on Western Americana, Peter Decker, who will get his own blog post sometime soon. People like Decker still exist—William Reese, who got his start with Decker’s help, is apparently now the dean of dealers in Western historical material. But in the days before Google, these antiquarians found the missing links—the old books, manuscripts, magazines, and letters—that historians like Alvin relied on in telling the stories.
There is something importantly tactile about end-covers with initials and signatures on them, about the books and important papers and journals and old newspapers, letters, and magazines we own, something that Google can’t quite capture.
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Alvin and Hollywood–what stuck!

My New Years Resolution is to be more consistent with blogs and make them shorter while ranging widely over Josephy material and Josephy interests. I want to do this without being “gee whiz, look what Alvin wrote/did/said/ this time!” But to soberly address narrative history, Western history, Indian history, environmental history—Alvin’s things and the things Alvin leads us to.

But this week his cousin sent me most of a manuscript dated 1952 for a proposed television program about the first man to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and I got an email from a grad student researching a WW II Marine named Peter Ortiz. Turns out there was a movie—“Operation Secret”—and, you got it; Alvin wrote the screen story….

Alvin came home from Iwo Jima to “sell the war.” The public was distressed that we’d lost 7,000 Marines taking a small bunch of rocks in the Pacific. Alvin, Indian flag raiser Ira Hayes, and a few others traveled the country explaining the lives saved, those of airmen flying to Japan on bombing sorties who now had a safe landing strip and fueling station to ease their work. Alvin and company fully expected to be back in the Pacific and part of the invasion of Japan when the Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the course of the war.

So he stayed home, wrote his first book, The Long and the Short and the Tall, a non-fiction account of Marines in battle, abandoned a novel, and went back to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting again (he had spent time there as a “junior screenwriter” in the 30s). Although he picked up a few film credits, there were no major successes, and veterans’ organizations and a gambling scam he uncovered while writing on the side for a Santa Monica weekly were more rewarding. Hollywood was skewed to the entertainment side and he wanted real stuff—he’d just been through a real war.

Time Magazine made a better offer in 1951, and the movie chapter of his life—and Betty’s; she was his biggest Hollywood find—came to an end. In the bibliography he prepared in 2001, Hollywood and the years 1945-51 get this:

“Red Clay,” “Something for the Birds,” Captive City,” part of “Beginning or the End,” and other movie treatments for MGM, Warner Brothers, United Artists.”

I don’t think “Red Clay” was produced—and think it was a disappointment for Alvin. “Something for the Birds” was California Condors and the oil companies. “Captive City” was based on the true story of Alvin and Betty dodging the mob after his gambling disclosures, and “Beginning or the End,” for which I can find no Josephy credit, was the story of General Groves and the Atom bomb. I am somewhat curious at the omission of “Operation Secret,” because this story of an American who spoke 10 languages, fought with the French Foreign Legion, the US Marines, and as a behind the lines OSS operative in France, was a Josephy natural.

“The First Man To Walk Across Brooklyn Bridge”—a TV treatment never produced—is a slower story, but it too grabs a big piece of history—the bridge when completed in 1883 was “hailed as the greatest wonder of the western hemisphere.” Alvin weaves a family story and New York ward politics into the piece—who knows why it didn’t get produced, or how many other treatments he tried out on Hollywood.

What I do know, and have said before, is that when Alvin discovered the Nez Perce Story—the deep history, broken treaties and dramatic War, the miracle of survival and confidence in the long future—he found his true subject matter and life work, the American Indian. His time as a Marine Corps journalist in the heat and heart of war, and the frustrating years at the edge in Hollywood—the dramas chased and the ones Hollywood left behind—honed and shaped the historian and activist he would become.

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Google the movies above for a trip through the mid-twentieth century American drama.

Alvin at War

Alvin at war

Being a direct participant in World War II was a choice for Alvin Josephy—but not much of one. Born in 1915, he came of age in the depths of the Depression as fascist regimes were gaining power in Europe. He’d been involved with student groups and national politics—meetings and debates on Huey Long, socialism, communism, and the New Deal—while at Harvard, traveled to Mexico to interview Trotsky and President Cardenas in 1937, and was working as news director at WOR Radio in New York on the eve of Pearl Harbor.

Soon after Pearl Harbor Alvin headed to Washington D.C. and Archibald MacLeish’s Office of Facts and Figures—the government propaganda arm. It wasn’t close enough, and connections, contacts, and events soon had him at Perris Island Boot Camp, and then a Marine Corps combat correspondent in the Guadalcanal mop-up, and at the landings and occupations of Guam and Iwo Jima.

He waded ashore at Guam, talking into a condom-covered microphone tethered by 40 feet of wire to a recording machine buried in a landing craft. Most of the men he walked ashore with were hit before they made the beach, but securing the Island and taking Japanese prisoners was every bit as dangerous and as important in Alvin Josephy’s growth as a man and writer. On Iwo he hopped from unit to unit, place to place, often traveling by ambulance—he said ambulance drivers knew the current score on the ground better than anyone else.

Alvin and a few others were called back to the States from Iwo to explain to the American public why over 4,000 Marines gave their lives to take an 8 square mile island a million miles from home. The answer was B-29s. In the first 100 days after the Iwo airfields were opened, 851 planes, coming back crippled from air strikes on Tokyo, unable to make it back to their take-off points in the Marianas, landed safely on that 8 square mile island.

Then came the Atom Bomb—and Alvin did not have to return to battle in the Pacific and the anticipated invasion of Japan. A trunk arrived from Guam with carbon copies of the dispatches he’d sent to ships to send to home town papers across the land—interviews in fox holes, stories of courage, camaraderie, and thoughts of home. He took a month of leave, went to North Carolina, and wrote his first book, The Long and the Short and the Tall.

It was published in 1946, when he was 31 years old. I’d never read it while he was alive, though I’d heard some of the stories as we traveled the Northwest to readings and signings with his memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon. And watched and listened as old Marines came to have books signed and talk about Guam and Bougainville, Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

Some of them cried, as I cried last week, 65 years after the events and the writing about the events, cried at the horror, heroism, dumb luck and tragedy of a war so huge and so different as to make it almost inconceivable now. Today’s wars are their own kind of horror, heroism, dumb luck, and tragedy, but the concept of 800 ships and thousands of men attacking 30,000 enemy soldiers on a tiny island with bombs, shells, and bayonets is a hard one to get around today. But it made the “survivor’s guilt” that Alvin sometimes talked about and that the vets who came to our readings talked about palpable.

And I think I found an understanding of something else that he brought back from that War. On Guam they had launched an effort to take Japanese prisoners, and although most of the defeated Japanese committed suicide or fought to their deaths, some did surrender, and Alvin found hope in that. He thought, as he lay in a ship’s hold with a handful of prisoners and fellow Marines after an evening of conversation, that maybe minds could be changed, that Japanese soldiers who thought suicide more honorable than surrender could learn “bigger ideas,” and that the world might embrace” freedom and democracy and justice and truth.”

He spent the next 60 years chasing and embracing those ideas.

p.s., used copies of The Long and the Short and the Tall can be had for five dollars and up. “New” copies—I would guess that means mint condition copies—of the 2000 paperback edition from Buford Books, with a new foreword by the author, are $100 and up!