Notes From The Crypt

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The series we’ve been running on American house styles reminds us of how often the latest, most up-to-the-minute styles and movements in history and culture are revivals of earlier modes. A few issues back Alexander O. Boulton looked at the Gothic—a style that swept Europe in the eighteenth century and made its mark on thousands of American houses in the next century. The Gothic—in the arts, literature, and philosophy—was an exercise in nostalgia for a medieval world of deep spiritual values and faith from which arose some of the greatest artistic monuments of the West. But the houses of the Gothic Revival, when they first went up, were the newest, most fashionable toys in town. In our own era architects still resurrect Gothic forms to touch up their skyscrapers or beach houses.

This month Boulton moves on to survey the swashbuckling Mediterranean or Spanish Colonial house style—a style by no means confined to our warmer, seagirt regions but one that may just as well turn up on the face of a house in Milwaukee or a gas station in Tulsa. It seems that in architecture as in history, nothing ever gets lost forever. Like a ghost, it just wanders around looking for ... a home.

Another kind of spirit that’s come back to haunt us recently is that of Lyndon B. Johnson. With the publication by Knopf this spring of the second volume of Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, a monster of ego emerges who is almost as scary as any in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the laureate of American Gothic.

What we have read so far of Caro’s book fills us with disbelief—not of Caro’s monumental research but simply of the portrait of a man so blindly obsessed with power that almost all traces of his humanity disappear. Caro’s story of Johnson’s Senate campaign of 1948, to give just one example, is a breathtaking tale of usurpation. With the connivance and intervention of Texas businessmen, party and elections officials, the police, lawyers, and the judiciary, LBJ stole the election—not metaphorically but literally. It is enough to turn the most wised-up or disinterested reader into a volcano of indignation.

Our own piece on LBJ by William E. Leuchtenburg in this issue is more likely to evoke bitter laughter than outrage. Like too many of our leaders in recent years, LBJ was determined to look to history for vindication, imagining that if he used enough muscle, he could manage his future reputation as effectively as he had managed his political life. He was wrong.

Byron Dobell