Monthly Archives: October 2020

Katherine’s Bookshelf – China Under the Empress Dowager

This time, on a Very Special Episode of Katherine’s Bookshelf, I’ve got a Very Special book for you, and it’s one of my favorites, but not for the reasons you might think.

Faded yellow cover with red lettering.
LIES! It’s all lies!

Cover to cover, this book is basically the history writing equivalent of a fresh cowpat steaming in the crisp autumnal air at dawn. A giant pile of bullplop and a hot mess. In fact, it’s one of the most notorious history non-fiction forgeries of the 20th Century.

Published in 1910 – just two years before the Qing Dynasty would fall, this book about the life and policies of Dowager Empress Cixi claims to be based on the diary of a court official, which just so happened to fall into Backhouse’s hands. Backhouse then went to Bland, who was a journalist at the time, and wrote the book with his assistance. Yes, this is absolutely a work of wild-eyed sensationalism, designed to appeal to what the English-reading audience already believed, and wanted to have reflected back at them.

The first tip-off that the whole thing was a hoax probably should have been that Backhouse was a dude, his co-author Bland was a dude, and the supposed court official was also a dude. (This wasn’t, for example, claiming to be based on letters of a court official’s daughter who was serving in the inner palace, which would have been at least plausible.) There is absolutely no way that any of these biological males ever would have gotten firsthand information of what was going on in the private quarters of the Forbidden City. That’s why there were court eunuchs, whose primary job it was to relay information and orders between the Empress and Dowager Empress’ offices and the court. It’s called the Forbidden City for a reason, not the Everybody Come in and Make Yourselves at Home City.

The Dowager Empress Cixi in a sedan chair with attendant court eunuchs.
The Dowager Empress Cixi in a sedan chair with attendant court eunuchs.
Dowager Empress Cixi and four Western ladies and a small girl in a frilly dress.
Obviously, you could visit, if you weren’t an intact biological male. That’s how the lion’s share of these photos were made: biological female photographer.
Dowager Empress Cixi as the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin.
Empress Dowager Cixi was very image-conscious and savvy. She commissioned many portraits and photographs of herself and her attendants. Here, she is depicted as Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of mercy, possibly to put a good spin on the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. This is a political statement, definitely not a frivolous game of dress-up.

The most obnoxious part of all this for me is that it’s not like China Under the Empress Dowager by J.O. Bland was the first and only book about the topic available in English at the time. There were at least two previous accounts of Dowager Empress Cixi’s inner court atmosphere. One, published in 1907, was written by Katharine A. Carl, a painter who had made a portrait of her, and the other was a 1909 collection of published letters by the wife of the American Minister to China, Sarah Pike Conger. In 1911, just one year after the publication of China Under the Empress Dowager, a third account was published, this time by one of the ladies of the court, Princess Der Ling. But, of course, all three of these authors were women, which probably impacted their reception by the public. That’s not to say, of course, that these three books are without bias – Sarah Pike Conger and Katharine Carl had their own agenda and racist prejudices, naturally, and Princess Der Ling wanted to defend the Qing Dynasty. Nevertheless, they weren’t made up nearly whole cloth, as Backhouse’s infamous book was. Keeping their inevitable biases in mind, these firsthand accounts can be used to approach the truth, or at least something nearer to it.

Despite these accounts, two of which beat his to publication, and each of which had more direct information, Backhouse’s book was more salacious and conformed better to what his audience wanted to believe. The media echo-chamber is not a problem of the present alone, it’s a problem of human nature, and definitely not unique to the 21st Century and the Internet. Does anyone remember the Maine? William Randolph Hearst? Turn-of-the-century Yellow Journalism? We should. So spare a thought for your information, how you get it, from where and why.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Drive-Thru Grab Bag Book Sale at the Main Library

The Friends of the Library will host a Drive-Thru Grab Bag Book Sale October 22-24 outside the Main Library.

Customers can select a genre and Friends staff will fill a bag with 5 oversized books or 8 regular-sized books for $10 and bring them to the car. The Friends will accept exact cash, credit/debit, Venmo, or Cash App.

Members-Only Night is Thursday, October 22, from 4:30–6:30 p.m. Memberships will be available for purchase at the event.

Public hours will be 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, patrons can visit friendsofthelfpl.org or call (502) 574-1654.

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Casey Rae

David Bowie and William Burroughs, photo by by Terry O’Neill 

I didn’t read much as a child. As a late teen, I discovered good literature via my love for Rock & Roll. And I continue to do so as an old man.

I had a need to find the sources of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed’s references in their lyrics and interviews. Once I found The Beats, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, and Hubert Selby, the flood gates broke and unleashed a “word hoard” that has drowned me. But, I believe, literature is a good way to die. Or live.

The writer who has influenced all the rockers that I mentioned before is WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS.

Paul McCartney chose him to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And through Paul, Burroughs was a big influence on The Beatles’ avant-garde development in the mid 60’s. Bob Dylan read Naked Lunch (1959) and it influenced his lyrics and poetry collection, Tarantula, which is like reading Burroughs’s later cut-ups. Lou Reed was very influenced by Burroughs’ subject matter in Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, reflected in many songs such as “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Heroin.”

Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs, photo by Victor Bockris

Bill lived a very hard and lonely life. But an exciting life.

Born in 1914 in St. Louis to a prominent family, Harvard educated, but bored and a total misfit, he began hanging with seedy people in seedy places. Bill was a founding member of The Beat Generation that began in the late 40’s with the meeting of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

He began doing morphine around age 30 and was a heroin junkie for a large part of his life. This made for him a very peripatetic life around the globe (Tangiers, Paris, London) until he landed in NYC in the mid 70’s. He was always running from the law. He was in his early 60’s and managed to get another bad heroin addiction in NYC. His assistant helped him move to Kansas to get away from drugs. He was on the methadone program and smoked weed until his death at age 83.

This book is not a biography but a travel through Burroughs’ life and those that choose him as a friend and an influence. And the list is long of musicians that sought Bill out at his place in NYC (known as “the Bunker”) or to his modest home that he owned, late in life, in Lawrence, Kansas. David Bowie (pictured above), Iggy Pop (pictured below), Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, members of Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth to name a few. Many just mined his writings for their band name (Soft Machine, Steely Dan, and Mugwumps – an early version of The Mama and Papas – to name a few), or for song titles/lyrics.

Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs

This book explores every musician inspired by Bill’s very wild life and writings. The irony in such a book is that Bill had no interest in Rock & Roll or Punk Rock (which he is oftentimes called the Godfather of Punk Rock). But he took a great interest in the musicians that visited him. And he formed a few friendships with men young enough to be his grandsons.

He was very fond of Kurt Cobain, who visited him 6 months before Kurt committed suicide. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”

I have read a lot about Burroughs’ life and some of his books, yet there are stories told here that I have never heard before. For example, there’s a very funny one about his first visit from Al Jourgensen, the leader of the band Ministry.

William S. Burroughs is a writer that you should know and this book is a good way to begin. Or if you already familiar with him, it is a good book to add to your knowledge of him.

Reviewed by Tom,Main Library