We Can't Reach You, Hartford
An investigative history of the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6th, 1944. Nominated for a Fringe First at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In the twilight of his life, famed photographer Matthew Brady must choose between the life he has built and the legacy he wants to leave behind.
Tone Clusters
Renowned prose author Joyce Carol Oates explores honesty, perspective, and denial through one couple's harrowing attempt to save the person they love
Thursday, December 13, 2007
The Nazi Question
So on Monday night, Jess, Erin and I went to the Short Form meet-and-greet. Towards the end of the night, I got into a conversation with Peter, one of the curators, about Lindbergh. After a little back and forth about all the weird dramaturgical detritus I was collecting, Peter told me that he'd always thought of Lindbergh as one of the great villains of American history. This wasn't the first time I've heard this. In fact, nearly every time I tell someone my new play is about Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi question comes up. There's been a real backlash against Lindbergh in recent years, the most visible example being Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. The 2003 revelation that Lindbergh had a secret German family probably didn't help matters much either.

But was Lindbergh actually a Nazi? Well, no. But he came pretty close.

Here's the deal: In 1938, Lindbergh co-wrote a book with Dr. Alexis Carrel that more or less promoted eugenics. Later that same year, Hermann Göring (yes, that Göring) presented Lindbergh with the Service Cross of the German Eagle. Once World War II started heating up, Lindbergh still refused to return the medal because he thought it would be an insult to the German government. But most damning, on September 11, 1941 (eerie how history seems to echo sometimes), Lindbergh, as a spokesman for the non-interventionist America First Committee, gave the following speech in Des Moines, Iowa:

I've listened to this speech over and over again. This is the man whose story I want to tell?

It's certainly no secret that our plays are attracted to historical figures with severe dichotomies (see: Mathew Brady: a pioneer of photography and a terrible husband; P.T. Barnum: a wise, omniscient spirit and flippant jackass), but an anti-Semitic aviator might be taking things to a new low.

And yet, I'm not satisfied with simply writing Lindbergh off as simply anti-Semitic. Even though I wholly reject hero worship and the Great Man theory of history (more on this later, I imagine), I can't help but be amazed by Lindbergh's story. His journey across the Atlantic is a gripping narrative even when you know he's going to make it safely in the end, the loss of his son is certainly heartbreaking, and his later work with Dr. Alexis Carrel has a certain quixotic pathos to it.

I listen to his America First speech and I try to square that voice with the boy F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing about when he said:

In the spring of '27, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought their old best dreams

On a good day, I can reconcile the two in my mind for a moment.

When my 80 year old Iowa-bred grandmother heard about my new play at Thanksgiving, she begged me to leave the America First speech out. She told me that I should treat Lindbergh like a hero, not the villain historical revisionism has made him out to be. I don't know if I can do that. But I don't know if I can condemn him either.

So where does that leave me?
posted by stephen @ 11:02 AM  
  • At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Can't we do both? There is clearly no answer to who and what this man represents to us today, or even who he was to people back then. It all relates to your individual beliefs and the heirarchy of your values. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to complicate the issue. No single person is inherently "good" or "bad". Life doesn't work like that. People are messy, dirty, beautiful creatures that shouldn't be reduced to an archetype. History does that naturally; I thought one of our goals was to challenge those assumptions. And if you ask Charles Mee, I think he'd agree.

    Yes, your grandmother was uncomfortable with the idea challenging the status of a historical figure--but what does that tell us? Why do we venerate these people? What happens if we trample on him at the same time? That sounds truer to me than anything else. So don't hold back, Steve. Lift him up into the air where he belongs, but rip him apart, too. That's the kind of play that would stick with me.

  • At 12:43 AM, Blogger stephen said…


    The real challenge I'm getting at here isn't a decision as to whether Lindbergh was good or bad. I agree with you (and Chuck) that people are much more complex than the archetypes history tends to impose on us. The real difficulty I'm having is first in fixing these archetypes, in making the "good" heroic Lindbergh and the "bad" fascist Lindbergh of one mind. Namely in imagining a character who is a noble, fearless, humble, bombastic and manipulative rascist. A true American hero who happens to side with Germany against his own nation.
    If creating such a complex character wasn't enough, the second difficulty comes in deciding what to do with Lindbergh once he's been saved from the broad characterizations of history. Do I lift him up and then tear him apart, that is, leave him broken and seeking penitance in the play's last moment? Do that and the end result is the same as if I had never saved him from revisionism in the first place. In the end, I've still soiled one of the bravest and most modest men I've encountered in 20th century letters (not to mention how it would upset my grandmother).
    But if I rip him apart, but then, in the end, lift him back up into the air where he belongs, can I be accused of ultimately celebrating a man who embodies some of the most poisonous ideas of the last 100 years? To even be ambiguous on this point can prove
    It's obvious that we need to try to be balanced, objective, and yet critical about Lindbergh and his legacy, but in the end, I don't see how we can get around coming down on one side or the other. The ways the plays are structured right now, there is that last act where Lindbergh is going to have to ask for mercy and perhaps forgiveness.
    Do we give it to him? And what will that say about us?

  • At 12:25 PM, Blogger Katey said…

    The year Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic = the year of the first talkie = the year Daniel Plainview lost his shit in bowling alley.

    All coincidences, of course. But while you write a play about a great man, the movies are being rocked by the story of another. They all say something about who we are.

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