Tuesday, December 22, 2009

PDT: Bankrupt!






On December 21, 2009, Heartland Publications, the parent company of the Portsmouth Daily Times, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. As of October 2009, Heartland had debts of $166.2 million but assets of only $134.3 million, which is a deficit of some $32 million. Heartland announced that it hoped to restructure itself, emerge from bankruptcy, and eventually return to profitability. Given the precarious financial condition of newspapers generally in the United States, and of Heartland Publications in particular, the prospects of Heartland ever returning to profitability seems like a pipe dream and its announcement just a hollow public relations pronouncement. When, pray tell, was Heartland, founded by James M. McGinnis, Jr., in 2004, ever profitable?

The federal government used stimulus packages to bail out Citigroup and other financial institutions as well as General Motors, which are showing signs of recovery. But the government is not about to bail out the newspaper industry. No one can seriously make the case that newspapers are too important to the economy to be allowed to fail. On the contrary, print newspapers are an increasingly obsolete if not irrelevant industry. As many residents in Portsmouth have learned, the incredibly shrinking Portsmouth Daily Times is something they can easily live without. For those of us who feel that it is editorially bankrupt and believe that it is the house organ of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, the financial bankruptcy of its parent company comes as no surprise. Like the system of canals that were built in Ohio and elsewhere in the United States in the early nineteenth century, canals that were subsequently rendered obsolete by railroads, the newspaper industry is being rendered obsolete by the Internet. Perpetuating newspapers makes about as much sense, financially, as perpetuating canals.

In addition to suffering from the same economic problems that other newspaper companies are plagued with, Heartland Publications has problems peculiar to itself. McGinnis, the founder and CEO of Heartland, turned out to be not only incompetent but a crook. He made his home and headquartered his business, incidentally, not in the heartland of America, but in Florida, and he drove a car produced not in the American heartland, but in England, a gold Jaguar. In a plea bargain, McGinnis later admitted having stolen $1.7 million from his own company after which he forged bank account statements to cover his theft. (I wrote about McGinnis in River Vices back in 2005 in “Prostitute Times.”) McGinnis reportedly had named his company Heartland because his weekly and small daily newspapers were located in what used to be called America’s heartland but what is now more often referred to as America’s Rust Belt. It is too often the case that con artists use patriotic names and sacred symbols in which to wrap their greedy and ill-conceived schemes, as McGinnis did Heartland, which now, not surprisingly, has gone belly up.

The Portsmouth Daily Times’s parent Heartland Publications filing for bankruptcy came fast on the heels of an announcement by the newspaper that it had appointed Deborah Daniels, previously a features reporter, as managing editor. Whether she is “acting” (i.e., temporary) or permanent managing editor is not clear, but at this point what’s the difference? Isn’t everyone at the PDT now effectively temporary? Daniels may have been the reporter who some years back wrote a series of investigative articles on prostitution in Portsmouth. It is the only investigative reporting that I can recall the PDT doing in the last twenty years. If I recall, she or whoever wrote the series concluded prostitution was a result of drugs, to which most of the prostitutes were addicted, but she apparently did not investigate the notorious local lawyer who was and still is widely rumored to be involved in both the drug and prostitution rackets in Portsmouth. PDT reporters would not do that kind of investigation because certain local lawyers like certain local businessmen enjoy an immunity from investigation and prosecution

Au Revoir River Vices

I will be taking a sabbatical from River Vices for the first half of 2010 to prepare a publication for the 300th anniversary of a church in my hometown, in Massachusetts, which I mentioned in a previous posting. I know that the results of the recent municipal elections in Portsmouth, while encouraging, do not signal the end of the problems plaguing our community, including drugs and prostitution, but rather just the first tentative steps toward addressing them. I wish I could continue to investigate and comment on those problems in the months ahead. But I know from the past four and a half years of writing River Vices that it takes up more time than most people might imagine. It is not the writing—it is the research and the editing (the editing above all) that demands so much time. I envy those who can knock off a piece of writing with no sweat in no time. I agonize over each word and sentence and I revise constantly, and still end up dissatisfied with the results.

I even envy those emotionally and mentally disturbed individuals who post frequently and anonymously in chatrooms and blogs, without regard for spelling, syntax, or sense. For several years, in the 1950s, as an undergraduate, I worked as a psychiatric aide in a mental hospital, on the graveyard shift, usually on the ward for the criminally insane. Every day, I see people walking the streets of Portsmouth or posting on the Internet who probably would have been institutionalized in the 1950s, when there was very little tolerance for non-conformity. But today with the development of antipsychotic drugs and tranquilizers, people who would previously be walking in circles in a mental ward can today not only walk the streets but also can exercise their First Amendment rights on the Internet, even if they are somewhat mentally disturbed or have personality disorders. Why do they post anonymously? Why don’t they sign their names and identify themselves? They’re mentally disturbed, some of them clinically so, but they are not so crazy as to use their real names and identify themselves. And for good reason. Their anonymity encourages them to write things that they would not be so brave or foolish enough to write if their identity were known.

Since what they say and how they say it indicates they are disturbed, they don’t want to reveal who they are. And why should they? They have a right not to. We live in a free and increasingly insane country, and they have a right to remain anonymous and disturbed, and a right to not be exposed as part of the madding crowd. It is only when they act out their Internet gun-nut assassination fantasies that they become dangerous; it is only when they show that they are crazier than they are cowardly that they need to be feared. That is why gun nuttiness on the Internet should not be ignored.

Skunks

The crazies are one thing, skunks another. The skunks don’t reveal their identity because . . . Well, because they’re skunks and like the scorpion in the fable of the frog and the scorpion, can’t help doing what comes naturally. Which is make money. Skunks are foxy and know how to make a buck while faking being philanthropists. But we need them all, and we will especially need them when the Portsmouth Daily Times is no more. Let a hundred bloggers blog; let a hundred schools of thought contend. This a rule that should be followed in America and especially in the so-called American heartland. Let the presses of the bankrupt PDT rust in peace but let the bloggers blog. Long live the blogosphere!

"The nice thing about the Internet is nobody knows you're a skunk."







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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Swearing-in of Jane Murray

Portsmouth Mayor-elect Jane Murray




Thursday morning, December 17, at a historic ceremony in the rotunda of the County Courthouse, Jane Murray was sworn in as Portsmouth’s first female mayor. The South Webster High School choir sang Christmas carols after the ceremony, and the words of one carol echoed in my head as I left the Courthouse: “The hopes and fears of all the years . . .”

I: The Hopes

For Mayor-elect Murray, our hopes are high. The city now has as mayor someone with the education, experience, diligence, and intelligence commensurate with the responsibilities and challenges of the highest office in city government. As she had promised throughout the campaign, she has assembled an advisory team, or what was called back in the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a kitchen cabinet, which includes none of the usual suspects. Rather, it includes accomplished and respected individuals, both male and female, both black and white, of various ages, from our community.

The Mayor-elect emphasized in her remarks to the several hundred well-wishers who attended the swearing in that she was just beginning what would be a team effort in which transparency and responsiveness would prevail. To underscore that point, she introduced her team of advisors, who were seated in the front row, providing a thumbnail biography of each. She went on to explain how she had become involved in the political life of Portsmouth after she became one of the flooded homeowners in the Grandview Avenue neighborhood. She had become one more victim of the incompetence and corruption of the Kalb administration. She promised a government that will help raise the city from the political and financial shambles that it is now in. Judging from the substantial margin she won the primary by and the margin of victory she achieved in the general election over two male rivals, the incumbent Kalb and the write-in candidate Skiver, she obviously has considerable support among the electorate. Hers was not a narrow victory: she has a clear mandate from the voters to make significant changes in the way city business is conducted.
Unfortunately the city charter may not give her the constitutional authority she needs to make those significant changes, but judging by the way she campaigned, there is reason to think she will be as effective and determined in running the office of mayor as she was in the way she ran for it.

Instead of putting in lots of time raising money to advertise in the Portsmouth Daily Times and on local radio stations, she chose to focus on the more economical path of creating a website, communicating with supporters face to face and through email, and ringing door bells, all of which cost her very little. The old way of running for office, through the traditional media (the newspapers, radio stations, and billboards) no longer pays off. In spite of the big bucks they spent on traditional advertising, Kalb and First Ward councilman Mike Mearan—the one the embodiment of incompetence, the other of corruption—were defeated decisively, removing the two biggest obstacles to progress in city government. Murray is a mayor for the digital, not the
analogical age. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” somebody said to me as Murray took the oath of office. Let’s hope she will prove worth the wait, and there is good reason to think she will.

Murray on May 1, 2009, campaigning for primary, which she won by wide margin

II: The Fears

But if the hopes are high, the fears are deep. Murray is boarding a listing if not a sinking ship, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited a nation in the throes of the Great Depression, in 1932, and just as Barack Obama did at the beginning of 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. It took a decade before Roosevelt helped the country out of the economic doldrums. Whether Obama is going to succeed at turning things around is far from certain, especially with the Republicans saying no to anything that might redound to the credit of Democrats and the president, even if it would be good for the country.

Murray has an even steeper hill to climb than Roosevelt or Obama because Portsmouth has been going downhill not just for a couple of years, not just for a decade, but for about a half century; and it has been going downhill not just economically but also socially and morally, becoming a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, and lawyers and developers who have gotten rich on government pork and preferential treatment. Competition, supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, has all but disappeared in Portsmouth, where collusion and incestuous politics prevail. In America during the Depression, it was the New Deal; in Portsmouth for the last half century, it's been, except for the privileged few, the Raw Deal.

There are those who want to see Jane Murray fail; there are those who will do everything they can to see that she doesn’t succeed. I’m not going to say Police Chief Horner is one of those who will conspire against her, but the last two mayors wanted to remove him from office, yet he is still sitting in his corner, with his thumb in everything, while Bauer and Kalb are history. Horner will be involved in politics; you can count on that, and Murray should watch her back when the going gets tough. as it no doubt will. As somebody said to me after the swearing-in, if Murray really goes after the drug dealers, she’s going to stir up a “Horner’s nest.” Horner as a drug-buster has been a bust. That the notorious Journeys were able to chop up automobiles and sell Oxycontin for as long as they did at their garage, only a half mile from the police station, is one for the books. And she should watch out for the Portsmouth Daily Times, which will wait for its chance to pounce. Don't expect that shrinking but still slinking leopard to change its spots

As previously mentioned, the Portsmouth city charter does not give the mayor much executive authority. Since so much needs to be done, and she is so determined to do it, the limitations of her office could prove a serious impediment to progress. When I interviewed him for my video documentary, Recall of Mayor Bauer (1994), Frank Gerlach told me how frustrating it was as mayor to have so little authority under the charter. And as long as four years remains the term for city council members, the crooks will remain in control of that body by seeing to it that new lapdogs are appointed to replace those old ones who don’t complete their full terms for one reason or another. Howard Baughman's resignation to escape recall is the latest example of the way in which the council continues to be stacked with lapdogs; in this instance John Haas was
appointed Baughman's replacement. Albrecht, Mearan, and Haas are just the latest examples of lapdogs who were first appointed, not elected, to city council. A charter change to two-year terms will help stop the appointment shenanigans and make frequent recalls unnecessary, since citizens would be able to vote out the rascals on council every two years instead of being stuck with them for four. But it takes time and a lot of effort to get the charter amended, and meanwhile Murray will have to work with a council that has historically been a rubber stamp for the SOGP.

Marting Building

The Marting building we will always have with us. Or so it seems. It would be unfortunate if any of the new members of city council become a stalking horse for the SOGP-Marting Foundation. My suspicion is that the renewal of the campaign to tear down the Municipal Building is only the opening gambit in a political game that has as its ultimate goal the renovation of Marting’s and the turning over of the land where the Municipal Building is located to developers with visions of gambling dollars dancing in their head.

In the last eight years the Municipal Building has become a graveyard for the political corpses of those public officials, like Kalb, who made the stupid argument that the 75-year-old Municipal Building was decrepit and should not be renovated but the 125-year-old, leaky, moldy, cavernous, empty Marting building would be ideal for city offices. The truth is that renovating the Marting Building would represent not a step forward but a step backward. The voters didn’t decisively reject the Marting building several times and send Kalb packing in the last election only to have someone new try to promote Marting’s and Kalb’s other foolish policies, which have brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy, both financial and moral. If the county is in the toilet, financially, can the city be far behind? The election of Murray is an opportunity to put all the Marting malarkey behind us and to move forward.

Let’s have faith, during this holiday season, that the well-organized, stirring, and historic
swearing-in ceremony at the County Courthouse was a harbinger of better things to come, a sign of joy triumphing over tears, hopes over fears. “Fast away the old year passes,say the words of another carol, Hail the new, ye lads and lasses.”






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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Trent Williams, CPFA

Trent Williams, CPFA, who has a degree in music education, strums while city's finances go up in smoke



What is the meaning of the acronym CPFA that City Auditor Trent Williams attaches after his name when he signs official documents? Since CPFA has in it the letters CPA, which is an acronym for Certified Public Accountant, CPFA seems to imply that it stands for some kind of a Certified Public Accountant. But a CPA is an accountant who has been certified by and met the standards set for the profession by the state. But Trent Williams, CPFA, is not to my way of thinking the kind of accountant that the state of Ohio or any other public accrediting body would certify.


So who or what precisely is Trent Williams, CPFA? He is a Certified Public Finance Administrator, but he is NOT any kind of Certified Public Accountant, though there is an implicit attempt to suggest he is by including the letters CPA in his CPFA title.

The next important question is who certifies people to be CPFAs? It is not the state of Ohio or any public agency. It is a private group, APTUSC, or the Association of Public Treasurers of the Unites States and Canada. Founded in 1965 and having about 1,300 members, the APTUSC or APT, for short, offers the CPFA certification, but only to those who first join APT. The current individual membership fee is $409. Once the fee is paid, a member can then apply for CPFA certification, which presumably means paying another fee. This whole private certification business appears fee driven. As an additional expense, APT requires those getting a CPFA to attend the annual APT conference—$$$$.

The 2009 APT conference was held this past July in Spokane. The theme of the conference was “Effectively Managing the Peaks and Valleys of Your Financial Resources,” which is APT’s way of helping its members “to effectively manage their public operations and funds during the tumultuous times we are facing.” During his terms as auditor, Williams and the city of Portsmouth have had no financial peaks but quite a few financial valleys, the most recent of which looks more like the Grand Canyon than a valley. If Williams was able to attend the Spokane conference, let’s hope he got some ideas about dealing with the large city deficit he helped Mayor Kalb create and cover up.

You can go online and get any diploma or certification with a minimum of effort, sometimes no more effort than writing out a check to the private organization that is awarding you the diploma or certification. APT is not a diploma mill, but it does seem to operate within an ethical gray area. It offers “services” to its members, but the services seem to have as one of their goals the wringing of more money from members. The services APT offers include newsletters in which members can place a full page ad for a year at a cost of $3,000. Or members can publish an article in one of the APT’s magazine, at a cost of $500.That’s right, members pay APT for articles they write for APT magazines. APT has other money making services. It conducts six different workshops and seminars for which it charges participants $45 apiece. APT requires a 50 participant minimum to conduct these workshops and seminars, which comes out to a minimum of $2500 a seminar, plus travel and lodging expenses for the seminar leader.

The seminars cover six different subjects: Cash Flow Forecasting, Cash Handling, Debt Policy Development, Disaster Preparedness, Revenue Preparedness, and a workshop called “Stop that Fraud!” By attending these seminars, APT members get yet another certificate. It could be said APT is in the certification business. But isn’t there a disincentive to setting higher standards for certification? The lower the standards the more certificates they can issue and the more money they can make. It sounds like a conflict of interest. I suspect at least some CPFAs might be under-qualified for the positions they hold. I suspect at least some CPFAs are politicians who lack the appropriate education and relevant experience to qualify them for the offices they are elected or appointed to.

GFOA

Trent Williams, CPFA, is a member not only of APT but also of GFOA, which is an older, national organization, founded in 1906. GFOA stands for Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada. The GFOA has been awarding a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (CAFR) since 1945, and, wouldn’t you know it, Trent Williams, CPFA, is a recipient of a CAFR, to which, naturally, there is a fee attached. $$$$ GFOA awarded Williams a CAFR for the city’s financial report for 2006, the same report which received low marks from the CPA firm that the city hired to do an audit of city finances. Williams had the chutzpa to pass along a copy of this CAFR for the 2006 financial report to the Ohio State Auditor’s office with the city’s 2007 financial report. The outside 2007 audit, in turn, reported a number of shortcomings in the way the city and Williams conducted financial business, including that old standby “significant deficiency in internal control over financial reporting.” In other words, Trent Williams, CPFA, got a certificate of excellence for a financial report that an outside CPA criticized for faulty financial reporting and Williams sends that certificate of excellence along with his next financial report, which contains more or the same faulty financial reporting. In addition, a separate letter dated June 30, 2008, was sent by the outside CPA to the city regarding its noncompliance with accepted standards of financial reporting.

GOOFOFFS

I am considering creating an organization called GOOFOFFS, which would provide, for a fee of course, SNUFF Certificates for politicians trying to pass as auditors and financial officers, with SNUFF standing for, let's see . . . . How about: Sleazy, Negligent, Unscrupulous Financial Fuckoffs? The practice of awarding phony titles, certificates, and awards is par for the Tiger Woods PGA (Promiscuous Golfers Association) course in the public relations alternate reality that is America today. I recall an incompetent past president of Shawnee State University who, not long before he was pressured to resign, in 1998, got an award from some organization as an Outstanding Ohio Academic Administrator of the Year. It would not surprise me to hear that Trent Williams, CPFA, got a similar award for auditors, provided he or the city paid whatever fees are associated with such an award, and it would not surprise me either if there is public pressure for him to resign.

wms on steps
Trent Williams, CPFA, in front of Municipal Building









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Friday, December 11, 2009

O, Little Town of Portsmouth


The Marting Building, All Aglow
As hard as it is to believe, the empty, leaky, moldy, politically radioactive 130-year-old Marting building may yet again be pushed as the home for city offices in spite of voters having turned it down again and again.





O, Little Town of Portsmouth

How proudly, how reverently
A gift from Marting’s was given,
For Marting’s imparted unto Appalachia
A little touch of heaven—

A cashmere sweater, a prom dress,
A suit, a shirt, a fancy tie-pin—
“One of Ohio’s good stores,”
A place where even a guy would buy in.

But now in the leaking building
Shineth an unearthly light:
The mold of hundred-and-thirty-years
Glows eerily at night.

O, little town of Portsmouth,
How still thy overdozing politicians lie,
Who paid two million for Marting’s
And gave the city a black-eye.

While the rich whites celebrate
Xmas on the Hill above,
Listening to the caroling
To the birth of the God of love,

The fifty-thousand-watt Weasel,
Full of holiday chatter and mirth,
Is canoodling the Skunk and the Fox,
And a Mike of considerable girth.

O, God above,
Listen to us, we pray.
Cast out the lawyers and developers,
The Philistines of today.

Let the archangel Gabriel,
The great glad tidings tell:
The rich white trash of Portsmouth
Are going straight to hell.


R. Forrey


For the 2006 Marting Xmas poem, click here. For more on the Marting building, click here.











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Monday, December 07, 2009

Frances Trollope: American Dreams, American Nightmares

Illustration of Frances Trollope from Domestic Manners of the Americans





“On the 4th of November, 1827, I sailed from London, accompanied by my son and two daughters; and after a favourable, though somewhat tedious voyage, arrived on Christmas-day at the mouth of the Mississippi.”

So wrote Mrs. Frances Trollope (1780-1863), a genteelly adventurous English woman who came to America in 1827 and left in 1831 with a deep dislike of Americans in general and of the people of southwestern Ohio in particular. Influenced by Frances “Fanny” Wright, the Scottish-born radical feminist and Abolitionist, Trollope had come to America with mixed motives. She came to join Wright’s Tennessee commune whose noble purpose was to help Negroes. But she had also come to America, partly in desperation, to improve her family’s precarious finances, which is why after a disillusioning visit to Wright’s commune in Tennessee, she ended up in Cincinnati, trying to make a go of it in a retail business. Her husband, Thomas A. Trollope, whom she left behind in England, was a barrister, or English lawyer, who had the lesser title of baronet. But he was apparently bi-polar as well as a baronet and not a good breadwinner.

In going from Wright's commune to Cincinnati, with a population of not much more than 16,000, Trollope was going from the frying pan into the fire. Cincinnati was in its early stage of development, when there were more pigs than people and when it was beginning to earn the nickname “Porkopolis.”

After she returned to England from her sojourn in Cincinnati, Mrs. Trollope wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans (1835) in which she made the case that America was not only not God’s Country, but for a refined person like herself was a cultural wasteland as well as a waste of time. (Domestic Manners can be read online at Google Books.) What bothered her most about Americans and the residents of Cincinnati in particular were their appalling manners, which she attributed to the democratic cult of equality, which reduced everything and everybody in the money grubbing republic to the lowest common denominator. Yes, she agreed with the boastful Americans: they were equal—equally ignorant, equally arrogant, and equally expectorant. Baseball was not yet the national pastime—spitting was. America had adopted the eagle as its national symbol, but based on Trollope’s observations the spittoon would have been a more fitting hit-and-miss symbol.

Getting Religion

Next to their boorish manners, what offended Trollope most about Americans was their religiosity. As the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, she attached a great deal of importance to religion. The Preface to Domestic Manners states, portentously, “it is the moral and religious condition of the people which, beyond everything else, demands the attention of the philosophical inquirer . . .” To the extent that she qualified as a philosophical inquirer, she concluded that there was too much of the wrong kind of religion being propagated in “God’s Country,
 by far too many proliferating sects and denomination. In her opinion, religion in America was at best much too emotional and at worst outrageously mindless, with a lot of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure. For example, in an apparent effort to keep them from contact with unrelated males, American women were segregated nearly as much as slaves, but at religious revivals and camp meetings women became as fair game for male preachers  as deer were for hunters. 

Trollope got a lesson in what she took for religious hypocrisy early on from Nancy, a young woman she was considering hiring as household help. In interviewing for the position, Nancy told Trollope of her hard life as a country girl beset by all kinds of hardships and evil influences. But since she had come to Cincinnati, Nancy assured her prospective employer, she had found the answer for all her problems. “Thanks and praise for it,” she said with deep emotion, “I have got religion.” Trollope hired her, agreeing to let her attend church meetings every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. But on one of Nancy’s church nights, when Mrs. Trollope couldn’t sleep because of mosquitoes, she heard her entering below. It was very late. Going to the top of the stairs, she called down and asked her why she was so late getting home. “Oh, Mrs. Trollope,” Nancy replied, “I am late, indeed! We have this night had seventeen souls added to our flock. May they live to bless this night!” It was only later that Mrs. Trollope learned that Nancy was a young woman of loose morals, and if she was going to church early on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, she was otherwise engaged later those evenings. Nancy was what the English call, ironically, a trollop, i.e., a promiscuous woman or prostitute. But it is possible Nancy was not so much a rank hypocrite as someone for whom religiosity and sensuality were opposite sides of the same coin.

Trollope concluded that there was a thin line in America, or at least in southwestern Ohio, between Christian piety and pagan hanky-panky. She witnessed goings-on at a revival between preying preachers and god-drunk young women that shocked her. She also attended a camp meeting that was more like a Rolling Stones concert than a religious gathering, a gathering at which prayer was the pot and the ranting preaching the crack. If she had a crystal ball, she might have looked ahead, to 1975, when eleven fans were trampled to death in Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, where
the featured attraction, ironically, was the English rock group the Who. The word “fan” is derived, of course, from “fanatic,” which is what Trollope thought many Americans were when it came to religion.

Preying Preachers

Following a hellfire sermon at a revival meeting, one of the preachers looked to her like a lunatic. “The perspiration ran in streams from [his] face; his eyes rolled, his lips were covered with foam, and every feature had the deep expression of horror it would have borne, had he, in truth, been gazing at the [hellfire] scene he described.” This was obviously not the way English Anglican ministers, like Mrs. Trollope’s father, preached. In a variation of the good cop-bad cop routine, another preacher then took over and in a “coaxing affectionate tone,” urged those who wanted to be saved to come forward and take their seat on the “anxious bench” where they could pray for salvation. The preaching and hymn singing got mostly women, particularly adolescent girls, to come forward. Here’s Trollope’s description:

Young girls arose, and sat down, and rose again; and then the pews opened, and several came tottering out, their hands clasped, their heads hanging on their bosoms, and every limb trembling, and still the hymn went on; but as the poor creatures approached the rail their sobs and groans became audible. They seated themselves on the “anxious benches”; the hymn ceased, and two of the three priests [sic] walked down from the tribune, and going, one to the right, and the other to the left, began whispering to the poor tremblers seated there. These whispers were inaudible to us, but the sobs and groans increased to a frightful excess. Young creatures, with features pale and distorted, fell on their knees on the pavement, and soon sunk forward on their faces; the most violent cries and shrieks followed, while from time to time a voice was heard in convulsive accents, exclaiming, “Oh Lord !” “Oh Lord Jesus !” “Help me, Jesus !” and the like.

Trollope melodramatically described it as “a frightful sight to behold innocent young creatures, in the gay morning of existence, thus seized upon, horror-struck, and rendered feeble and enervated for ever. One young girl, apparently not more than fourteen, was supported in the arms of another some years older; her face was pale as death; her eyes wide open, and perfectly devoid of meaning; her chin and bosom wet with slaver; she had every appearance of idiotism.” Trollope’s opinion of revivals was, “I confess that I think the coarsest comedy ever written would be a less detestable exhibition for the eyes of youth and innocence than such a scene.”  

Camp Meeting

As “detestable” as she found the church revival, Trollope was to witness a much larger camp meeting in the woods that she thought was even worse. Instead of a score of hysterical females finding Jesus and shouting “Glory!” there were hundreds of them, “uttering howlings and groans, so terrible that I shall never cease to shudder when I recall them.” She pointed out that, “Many of these wretched creatures were beautiful young females” whom the preachers moved among, “at once exciting and soothing their agonies,” and, “with insidious lips,” breathing into their ears “consolations that tinged the pale cheeks with red.” Exhorted by the preacher to come forward and be saved, they fell on their knees and became convulsive and were soon all “lying on the ground in an indescribable confusion of heads and legs. . . . But how am I to describe the sounds that proceeded from this strange mass of human beings? I know no words which can convey an idea of it. Hysterical sobbing, convulsive groans, shrieks and screams the most appalling burst forth on all sides. I felt sick with horror.” For her, this was not the American dream; it was the American nightmare.
Was the United States a product of the Age of Reason or the Age of Superstition?

The morning after the camp meeting, at breakfast, “I marked,” she wrote, many a fair but pale face, that I recognised as a demoniac of the night, simpering beside a swain, to whom she carefully administered hot coffee and eggs. The preaching saint [the preachers] and the howling sinner [the young females] seemed alike to relish this mode of recruiting their strength.” The camp meeting Trollope described is like the gathering of the ungodly in the woods outside Salem in Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” The morning after participating in the witches gathering, the remorseful young Goodman Brown is surprised to see those he had seen (or dreamed he had seen) behaving like devils the night before, going about their business in the village as if they were innocent as lambs. The no-longer-young Goodman Brown went to his grave a complete Calvinist, convinced of the innate depravity of everybody, trusting nobody.

Having witnessed Americans not only at their most unmannerly but also at their most chastely Lady Chatterly, Mrs. Trollope did not despair. She did not improve her family’s finances in America, but she did when she returned to England and wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans. Catering to the prejudices of the English, and exaggerating the boorish manners and the religious fanaticism of Americans, Domestic Manners became a best-seller. It was her first book, but far from her last. She went on to publish over a hundred books, both non-fiction and fiction, including an anti-slavery novel that may have influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Two of her sons, Thomas and Anthony Trollope, went on to become successful writers. Anthony became one of England’s most popular novelists, and millions of Americans have watched dramatizations of his novels on PBS television.

Whatever her faults and however much Americans might rightfully feel she did them dirt, Mrs. Trollope was a resourceful woman who overcame all kinds of obstacles. As a baronet, her husband had been born with many advantages, but everything he touched turn to failure and he squandered his inheritance on ill-advised attempts at farming after he had failed as a lawyer.  
His life as I knew it,”  his son Anthony wrote, “was one long tragedy.”  Mrs. Trollope didn’t let her husband’s problems stop her. When he had to flee England to escape debtors prison, she and her children accompanied him to Belgium, where she supported the whole family through her writing while nursing her ill husband and the two of her children who had tuberculosis. (Four of her six children would eventually die of the disease.) She was both nurse and writer. “The doctor's vials and the ink-pot held equal places in my mother's rooms,”  her son Anthony wrote in his autobiography. She proved so successful as an author that, following her husband’s death, she was able to spend the last twenty years of her life in sunny Italy, far from gloomy Great Britain and even father from Cincinnati. “She continued writing up until 1856, when she was seventy-six years old,”  Anthony wrote, “and had at that time produced 114 volumes, of which the first was not produced until she was fifty. 

Portsmouth, Ahoy!

Mrs. Trollope never visited Portsmouth, but she may have at least glanced at it when she and her children left Cincinnati and steamed up the Ohio River on the first leg of their long journey back to England. Could she look in that crystal ball, she would have seen Portsmouth grow, from a rinky-dink fuel stop between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, to become a bustling industrialized city of over fifty-thousand, but she could have seen too, after the Second World War and globalization, how it gradually shrank into a
corrupt, chronically depressed, pork-dependent town of drug dealers, prostitutes, and rich white trash, but she would also have seen concerned citizens battling against the rich white trash and getting rid of the incompetent and corrupt politicians and electing Portsmouth’s first woman mayor . . .

Whoa! Wait a minute! I’m getting ahead of myself, probably way ahead of myself, if not dreaming. As Mark Twain showed, river towns have more than their share of vices, and Portsmouth is no exception. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Cincinnati. Mrs. Trollope had a long way to go when she steamed past Portsmouth and so do we. But she set an example we should follow and not conclude despairingly, as young Goodman Brown did, that you can't beat the devil. Life is irony. The example of the prejudiced, anti-American, anti-democratic English woman reminds us that we need to focus on the American dream, not the American nightmare, need to keep our eye upon the donut, not the hole, and upon the eagle, not the spittoon.

A clever caricature of Trollope as a brawny pipe-smoking backwoods woman.


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