It happened today – May 29, 2015

Edmund Hillary
On May 29, in 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay topped out on Everest and man had climbed as high as he could go without a ladder. They may not have been the first; it is possible that George Leigh “Because it is there” Mallory and Andrew Irvine reached the summit before dying on their fatal 1924 expedition. But Hillary and Tenzing are definitely the first to get there and back down again alive. And it was worth doing.

If you’ve ever been on an airplane you’ve sort of been there. Except for the bit where you have oxygen and powerful jet engines and cabin service. That’s how high Everest is. It’s also as close to the summit as I’ll ever get, or ever want to. Climbing Everest is something I admire from a distance.

In fact I have a bit of a thing about all the people now climbing Everest out of vanity, in expeditions that have more in common with intercontinental flight than Hillary and Norgay’s pre-velcro feat, let alone Mallory and Irvine’s classic British amateur hobnail boots and stout sticks. I argued years ago in a column that if you can’t lead an expedition up Everest you have no business being on one. And I think with all the other wild, challenging peaks, there’s no need to clutter up this particular peak just because it is the highest. I myself have no business there and never did and wouldn’t go.

Still, I confess that every time I see a mountain, and I have seen some Himalayan peaks from the hills of Nepal some years back, I do feel a wild urge toward adventure. I know there’s nothing on top of a mountain you’d want, and if you don’t get back down fast you never will. Still, I wish, even yearn, for a different and better world in which we could soar safely in such regions without artificial assistance that amounts to cheating.

So I applaud those who really do manage to do it, to satisfy that craving of the spirit and strive to fulfil that impulse I feel but can never satisfy. It really is a good idea for someone to climb them because they are there.

Wish I’d said that – May 29, 2015

James Fitzjames Stephen
“Parliamentary government is simply a mild and disguised form of compulsion. We agree to try strength by counting heads instead of breaking heads, but the principle is exactly the same…. The minority gives way not because it is convinced that it is wrong, but because it is convinced that it is a minority.”

James Fitzjames Stephen LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY

It happened today – May 28, 2015

If Dracula gives you the willies (see “It Happened Today” for May 26, the Virginian might help calm you down. It was on May 28 of 1902 that Owen Wister, a sickly Easterner with poetic and musical talents and summa cum laude Harvard degree, created another iconic figure in modern culture, the cowboy.

Of course there were other cowboy stories, of varying degrees of mediocrity or worse, before Wister’s book appeared. But it had an immediate transformative effect on the popular understanding of this figure, creating the brave, courteous, lighting-fast, tall, laconic lone hero represented by Hollywood greats from Gary Cooper to John Wayne and, in a more sinister vein, Clint Eastwood. Also Ronald Reagan, if the words “Hollywood great” make you smile when you say it.

Actually in the book the Virginian’s line is “When you call me that, smile!” But sometimes it’s what you should have said that makes you famous. And again it underlines the iconic power of certain cultural creations that they overshadow not only their creators but even their own actual selves.

Wister himself, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt who recuperated from a mysterious illness out West, did intend to influence the culture, to preserve the world of the cowboy even as progress was eliminating it (see Kid Shelleen’s lament about turning the OK Corral into a roller skating rink in Cat Ballou, one of literally hundreds, probably thousands, of films that would not exist without Wister’s achievement, including the parody genre).

Wister’s book was an immediate success, selling over a million copies by the time he died in 1938 (having decided, perhaps wisely, never to write another Western).

There are things to lament in Westerns, including offensive racial attitudes that, it must be said, were reflected rather than created in the genre. And of course a vast flood of derivative work that ought never to have seen the light of screen. Something like a third of American movies in the 1920s were westerns and in 1959 an incredible 28 western series were running on television in the U.S. And yet the Western also gave the United States, and by extension the West, a kind of native aristocracy of merit, an admirable model of a hero who does not look for trouble but meets it bravely when it comes, defends the vulnerable, and gets off great lines while doing it.

Smile when you read that, pardner.