Sunday, September 28, 2014

Seven Authors Who Should’ve Been Nobel Laureates

1.      Leo Tolstoy – 1908 (Instead of Rudolph Eucken)

The Russian master Tolstoy is one of the greatest novelists in the entire canon of World Literature. War and Peace, Anna Karenina and my personal favorite, The Death of Ivan Ilych are taught and studied worldwide as some of the finest novels ever written. By comparison, the German philosopher Eucken has not only not stood the test of time, having played no serious role in 20th century philosophy, but was not even particularly important in his own era. His is a case, all too common with the initial thrust of the prize, where ‘idealism’ was sought above all else in an author’s works.

2.      Mark Twain – 1904 (Instead of Frederic Mistral)

Twain would’ve beaten Sinclair Lewis, a very good but not great author, to the punch by 26 years for title of first American Laureate had he been given the prize in 1904. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is widely regarded as one of, if not the best American novel. Other great works have become critical to the canon, from The Prince and the Pauper to Tom Sawyer. Instead that year it was awarded to two authors: Jose Echegary – an important Spanish playwright, and Frederic Mistral – an essentially useless poet. Mistral wrote in Occitan, a language that is practically unknown. His poetry is, by a generous standard, saccharine in an unpleasantly pastoral way.

3.      Jorge Borges – 1974 (Instead of Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson)

Argentine author Jorge Borges’ short stories radically transformed the genre. Seen as a classic collection in his own time, and achieving international fame by the early 1960s, works such as “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” and “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” should’ve secured his winning the title of Laureate before he died in the 1980s. He is listed third, however, since the 1974 Nobel Prize was one of the most scandalous. Martinson and Johnson were, at the time, both members of the Nobel Committee, and shamelessly nominated themselves for the award. Both Swedish, adding to the skewed number from that country, neither is considered amongst the finest in their field, even in their home country.

4.      James Joyce – 1939 (Instead of Frans Sillanpaa)

The most important modernist of the 20th century was not an idealist – far from it – and likely did not receive the award on this count. Of course novels such as Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are now considered among the finest in the English language. By 1939 Irish author Joyce had published his final great work, Finnegan’s Wake, and died within a couple years. Frans Sillanpaa, admittedly, is one of Finland’s great authors – but he simply can’t compare against Joyce’s incandescent brilliance and innovation. Not to mention that, as a Scandinavian, he adds to the overall problematic total of that part of the world. Further, he lived until 1960, so he could theoretically have gotten it later, unlike Joyce, since after 1939 the award was suspended during the War.

5.      Henrik Ibsen – 1906  (Instead of Bjornstjerne Bjornson)

In an all-Norwegian battle, Ibsen should’ve gotten the award instead of Bjornson. The two make up half of the country’s Great Four literary talents. Ibsen was a critical playwright of the 20th century, with works like Hedda Gabbler and A Doll’s House paving the way for modernism in theater, tackling Edwardian taboos, and bringing to light important changing roles for women. Bjornson is considered one of Norway’s finest poets, but his poetry simply does not have the global reach and impact of Ibsen’s plays. Ibsen has stood the test of time, Bjornson, most certainly, has not.

6.      Lu Xun – 1931 (Instead of Erik Axel Karlfeldt)

It is not surprising that China’s only received two Laureates, one in 2000, and the other in 2013. In communist China in the age of Mao, we must recall literature was not allowed to flourish – especially during the terror of the Cultural Revolution. Lu Xun, China’s foremost modernist, had already written the bulk of his critical stories by the 1930s, and was part of a famous leftist movement. Easily regarded as the most important Chinese author of the early 20th century, his reputation rests on short stories like “A Madman’s Diary,” “Storm in a Teacup,” and “The New Year Sacrifice”. Karlfeldt, once again, is a Swedish poet of moderate or mediocre talent who – surprise – years earlier had been on the Nobel Committee.

7.      RK Narayan – 1962 (Instead of John Steinbeck)

Narayan is considered one of the foremost Indian novelists of the century. To date the massive country has had only one Laureate, Tagore in 1913. Unlike China, or Indonesia, there’s no dictatorship to blame for not being awarded more frequently for such a massive population. His trilogy of Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher all helped bring India’s literature to international attention, especially since written in English. American novelist John Steinbeck, himself, stated that he did not deserve the prize. While The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men have flourished, much of his oeuvre is second-rate. Indeed, his being awarded the prize was due to a split in votes between some superior choices: Jean Anouilh, Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa), Robert Graves, and Lawrence Durrell. The whole mess could’ve instead been avoided with the indubitably-deserving candidate, Narayan.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

UNESCO Sites in the United States with New Proposals

I’m planning this Spring to see a few UNESCO sites I’ve not yet seen on a road trip with my sister and mother. So far, of the 22 in the US I’ve seen 7:

La Fortaleza and Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Redwoods National Park, California
Statue of Liberty, New York
Independence Hall, Pennsylvania
Monticello, Virginia
Monte Verde National Park, Colorado
Yosemite National Park, California

The ones I’m hoping to see this Spring:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Mammoth Caves National Park, Kentucky
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Bringing my total up to 11 – and 11 to go:

Wrangell St. Elias National Park/Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i
Papahanamoukoukea Marine National Monument, Hawai’i
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Glacier National Park, Montana
Olympic National Park, Washington
Everglades National Park, Florida
Cahokia, Ohio
Poverty Point, Louisiana

And this brings me to the tentative list of sites currently being nominated for inclusion. Some are great, and some really sort of suck. Let’s investigate:

1.      Civil Rights Movement Sites (Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist ChurchBethel Baptist Church16th Street Baptist Church)

Sure. I think the US Civil Rights movement is of global significance. Heck, Robben Island in South Africa is a UNESCO site, so why not our buildings?

2.      Dayton Aviation Sites (Huffman Prairie Flying FieldWright Cycle Company and Wright & Wright Printing, Wright Hall, Hawthorn Hill)

Sure. We invented flight, it happened at a certain place, let’s commemorate that place.

3.      Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Definitely. One of the most important marine sanctuaries in the world, located in American Samoa. Should be included.

4.      Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings (Unity TempleFrederick C. Robie HouseHollyhock HouseTaliesinFallingwaterS. C. Johnson & Son Inc. Administration Building and Research TowerTaliesin WestPrice TowerSolomon R. Guggenheim MuseumMarin County Civic Center)

Definitely. I’m a huge fan of Wright, and have been to five of these sites. Other countries have similar UNESCO designations, such as the works of Anton Gaudi in Spain.

5.      Fort Ancient State Memorial (Hopewell Culture National Historic ParkNewark Earthworks State Memorial)

Meh. We have two major earthwork designations already – Cahokia in Illinois, designated in 1982 for the Mississippian culture, and Poverty Point in Louisiana, designated in 2014, for the Poverty Point culture. Now, the Hopewell are very important to North American culture, so if it becomes a site that’s cool. But that should be it for earthworks.

6.      Mount Vernon

Eh? I mean, if we’re talking precedents of Presidential homes in Virginia, Monticello is a very unique space that Jefferson designed. What makes Mount Vernon special? It’s a pretty typical plantation house. Of course, it was George Washington’s home, and that’s swell, but besides that connection there’s nothing really remarkable about it.

7.      Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

I like the old comic Pogo that took place in the Okefenokee. Like the currently endangered UNESCO site of the Everglades, it is a bio-rich swampland in Georgia and Florida. I wouldn’t mind this being added, I suppose.

8.      Petrified Forest National Park

Sure. I’ve been here. It is absolutely beautiful. I think, as incorporating part of the Painted Desert it is of significant value.

9.      San Antonio Franciscan Missions (Mission San Antonio (The Alamo)Mission ConcepcionMission San JoséMission San JuanMission Espada)

Sure. I mean, The Alamo is a thing – and more importantly there is nothing currently commemorating the Spanish legacy in the continental United States. Similar mission designations exist in other countries.

10.  Serpent Mound

Nope. Potentially of the Hopewell types listed above. Either meld the two sites, both located in Ohio an hour away from each other, or just go with Fort Ancient. I’m for grouping them and calling them ‘Earthwork Legacy of the Ohio Valley’. That’s an inclusion I’d support.

11.  Thomas Jefferson Buildings (Poplar ForestVirginia State Capitol) — proposed extension of Monticello and the University of Virginia listing

Sure, whatever.

12.  White Sands National Monument

Why? It’s “the largest gypsum sand dunes in the world”! Not a hotbed for geology, really, or for biodiversity, and certainly not for culture.

So let’s say of the 12 tentative proposed it increases the total list by 8: Civil Rights, Dayton Aviation, Fagatele Bay, Ohio Earthworks, Frank Lloyd Wright, Okefenokee, Petrified Forest, and the San Antonio Missions. That’d bring the US up to an even 30 sites – two fewer than Mexico, nine fewer than France or Germany, and fourteen fewer than Spain.

America is a huge country, with thousands of years of history (Monte Verde, Taos, Cahokia…). We should be a leader in UNESCO sites. I think another five on top of those 30 mentioned would be in order. I focused on the cultural, since most of ours are natural. So how about:

1.      The National Mall and Memorial Parks, Washington D.C. (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Capitol, White House, Thomas Jefferson Building, National Archives Building, Arlington National Cemetery)

The Washington Monument in the largest stone obelisk in the world. The Capitol is a superb example of American Neoclassicism, as is the White House, while the Lincoln Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Building represent the influence of the Beaux-Arts in America. Arlington National Cemetery contains the house of Robert E. Lee, a nice example of Greek Revival, the same style as the National Archives Building. This grouping of buildings has become universally recognized as quintessentially American. All have been restored or preserved under the most rigorous standards.

Washington Monument

Commemorating America’s first President, the structure is the world’s tallest stone obelisk and a focal point of the Mall, with the majestic reflecting pool leading to the Lincoln Memorial on one side, and the Capitol on the other.

Lincoln Memorial

One of the most recognizable buildings in America, commemorating America’s sixteenth President, the globally recognized Abraham Lincoln, known for preserving the union and ending slavery. The structure is critical to the Mall.

The Capitol

The original building was completed in 1800, and underwent continuous changes and additions until the most recent in the 21st century. As an architectural legacy of the United States adapting to its growth and increased role in world affairs, the Capitol became a model for legislatures around the globe.

The White House

Resident of every President since John Adams, the White House is universally recognized as the seat of America’s relatively unique Presidential democratic system. Like the Capitol, it has seen numerous changes, renovations, and developments to keep the iconic building up-to-date.

Thomas Jefferson Building

As the first building of the Library of Congress, currently the second largest library in the world, the Jefferson Building beautifully typifies the Beaux Arts that is common throughout the capital. The interior boasts some of the finest interior design in the country.

National Archives

Housing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, this humble building contains far more than these essential documents of world history: from an original Magna Carta to the Louisiana Purchase, the building is as essential as the existing UNESCO designation of Independence Hall, where these ideas came to fruition.

Arlington National Cemetery

As a monument to America’s Civil War, the grounds used to belong to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose house is still located on the site, and unusually for a member of the Confederacy, is a National Memorial. Amongst the 400,000 dead are two Presidents (Taft and Kennedy) and the Tomb of the Unknowns – one of the first such in the world.

2.      Historic San Francisco, California (Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, Alcatraz, Presidio, Waterfront, Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill, Golden Gate Park and Haight, Castro)

San Francisco is an iconic, globally identifiable city. A city of incredible historic significance, it was originally settled by Native Americans five thousand years ago. Sighted by Sir Francis Drake in 1579, the Spanish arrived in the mid-1700s, and the city was the epicenter of the 1849 Gold Rush, bringing cultures from around the world to develop a unique, lively city. In the 20th century San Francisco was privy to many counter-cultures from the beats to the hippies to the gay culture the city is now famous for. Initially the seat of the United Nations, it is undoubtedly a global center.

Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point

The most iconic structure of the City, it was declared an engineering marvel, and still is striking. At the time the longest-spanning suspension bridge in the world, a title it would hold for decades, the Bridge is easily recognized by its famed international orange. It is, for the Pacific, as noteworthy as the Statue of Liberty for immigrants coming to America. Fort Point, under the Bridge, was originally a Spanish fort, and then the last US fort built prior to the Civil War.  It is considered a very fine example of military architecture in the United States, and typifies the Coastal Defense system.


The famous prison island was originally a Native American site, it later was a lighthouse and military station, and most famously became a federal penitentiary in 1933, remaining so until 1963. It is one of the noteworthy sites of 20th century Native American protests. It is, as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the most-visited site under the purview of the National Park System.


First fortified by the Spanish in 1776, the Presidio was in active usage until 1989 – and played a role in the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, the War in the Pacific during WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Its adobe and brick structures are essentially unchanged.


Stretching from the Presidio this incorporates the stretch from Fort Point, part of the Coastal Defense, to the nearby Piers, including the exemplary Fisherman’s Wharf area, around to the Embarcadero and Ferry Building. Preserving the military, commercial, immigrant, and cultural importance of the city the waterfront is essential.

Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill

Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, was the beacon of the skyline until Nob Hill’s Transamerica Pyramid took the honor. Besides these two landmarks, Nob Hill is home to San Francisco’s internationally renowned Chinatown. Telegraph Hill is home to the North Beach – where the Beat culture of the 40s and 50s thrived. Nob Hill also has one of the city’s famous Cable Car lines. Art Deco buildings abound.

Golden Gate Park and Haight

Proportionally one of the largest urban parks in any city, Golden Gate Park’s development is important to the history of urban recreation. Purposefully breaking from the European promenade and works of Frederick Law Olmstead, Golden Gate Park was designed to be more ‘rugged’ and less formal. Originally built in the 1870s, it includes the oldest public garden in the United States – the Japanese Tea Garden, and a bison paddock that has been in use since the 1890s. The adjoining Haight-Ashbury is culturally significant as the epicenter of a global cultural revolution in the 1960s, and features a dizzying array of Victorian homes, from the mid-1800s.


The Castro was the center for much of the 20th century’s Gay Rights activism. It also contains a tremendous collection of Victorian houses, and is one of the oldest neighborhoods to have survived the 1906 fire and earthquake.

3.      Points of Departure: Gagarin’s Start and Kennedy Space Center (Joint-party site: Kazakhstan and Florida, United States)

This joint-party site is designed to venerate one of the few positive developments of the 20th century’s Cold War in the form of the Space Race. Gagarin’s Start, part of Baikonur Cosmodrome launched both the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, and first manned spacecraft, the Vostok 1. The Kennedy Space Center was the site of the first trip to another celestial body, as well as the space shuttle program that ushered in a new age of scientific discovery and international cooperation, in the form of the International Space Station serviced by both the United States and Russia.

4.      Historic New Orleans, Louisiana

The French Quarter comprises a little less than a square mile of buildings dating from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, with an array of cultural influences – Spanish, French, and Afro-Caribbean – that has played a critical role in America’s culture, and the world’s. Culturally the area may be most famous for Bourbon Street. Other historically significant districts besides the French Quarter include Treme, of tremendous global important as the site where jazz was invented as well as being a major influence in the blues, zydeco and Cajun culture generally. As the mouth of the Mississippi, it has played a very important role in the country’s military, economic, and cultural heritage including the development of steamboat technology in the 1800s by Robert Fulton. 

5.      New York City Cultural Landscape, New York (Skyscraper Ensemble: Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Woolworth Building, Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, Theater District – Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, United Nations Headquarters)

New York is the largest city in America; located on the island of Manhattan it is considered one of the critical ports and cultural centers of the world.  Initially settled by Native Americans the Dutch created permanent settlements in the early 1600s, with the English gaining control before the 18th century. It was part of the American Revolution, and was the city where Washington was inaugurated and Congress first convened. As the entrance for millions of immigrants in the 19th century the city grew significantly, and the city became an important focus of industrial developments. The growth of Wall Street in the 20th century lead to New York becoming a financial center, while movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, the East Village, and New York’s museums solidified a cultural influence. Perhaps most famously New York is home to Broadway – the leading light in global theater. Skyscrapers reached new heights in New York, as well as other engineering feats and designs into the mid-century. Finally the adoption of New York as the location of the United Nations cemented the importance of the city in world affairs.

Empire State Building

Completed in 1931, this was the world’s tallest building for four decades, and a triumph of workmanship during the Great Depression. It is an Art Deco masterpiece – besides being an engineering marvel. It is generally considered one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the world.

Chrysler Building

This structure was briefly the tallest building in the world, and still is the world’s tallest brick structure. It was the first human-made structure that surpassed 1,000 feet in height. It is considered to be aesthetically superior as an example of Art Deco in New York to the Empire State Building.

Woolworth Building

Prior to the Chrysler Building, the Woolworth Building held the world’s tallest building distinction from 1913-30.  Neo-gothic in style, it represents the early skyscraper history of the City. The interior is particularly rich and ornate in style.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower

As an example of the Italian Renaissance Revival, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building was the tallest in the world in 1909 – and the oldest still-standing building in New York to hold the distinction. It is also the oldest commercial building in the world to hold the distinction.

Theater District/Midtown/Times Square

Encompassing a number of Broadway theaters, as well as the universally recognized Times Square, this part of the City is critical to understanding the cultural legacy of New York. Including Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue and the New York Public Library to name a few cultural landmarks, it is the center, and the heart, of the City.

Brooklyn Bridge

The world’s first steel-wire suspension bridge, completed in 1883, neo-Gothic in style,  it was also the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of completion. It complements the skyscraper ensemble as part of the industrial revolution’s engineering legacy. Like those structures, it is considered and engineering marvel.

United Nations Headquarters

Opening its doors in 1952 the United Nations Headquarters are a marvelous example of mid-century architecture and the International School. While technically an extraterritorial compound of structures, the buildings have become iconic as an element of New York’s East riverfront. Famed architect Le Corbusier contributed to Niemeyer’s elegantly simple design.